Can an actor top an iconic performance by a legendary actor and still not step out of their shadow? Rooster Cogburn was made iconic by John Wayne in the only role which he won an Oscar, the Duke’s shadow casting wide over any actor stepping into the role. Which makes it curious to see Jeff Bridges take on the mantle of the meanest U.S Marshall in the territories in the Coen Brothers update of True Grit, a second cinematic adaptation of the novel of the same name by Charles Portis. Wayne was an actor that varied his roles to any significant degree. He always played the “John Wayne” role in the same way a handful of actors over the years have been able to take one main character and repeat it with different names. John Wayne always played John Wayne, no matter the setting or the director. Even his interpretation of Genghis Khan was really closer to “Genghis Wayne.” Going into the film, Bridges has a lot to live up to.
The film focuses on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager looking to sort out her father’s affairs. He’s been shot dead in a quarrel with Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled into Indian Territory and has taken up with notorious outlaw “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie hires the meanest U.S Marshall around, Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), to find Chaney and bring him to justice. They are joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), on his trail for Chaney’s killing of a Texas State Senator. They make an unlikely trio, chasing down Chaney and his newfound group of outlaws.
The film rests on this trio to carry it, comprising the sheer bulk of scenes, and Hailee Steinfeld manages to outshine both Damon and Bridges throughout the film. The role of Mattie is a tough one especially in light of how Kim Darby wonderfully played it in the original. Much younger than Darby, as well as the character made younger, gives Steinfeld a much tougher task as an actress. Mattie is a tough, smart girl who has a maturity well beyond her years yet without the hardening that maturity can bring to a girl in her situation. Steinfeld has a confidence about her that demands our attention but at the same time a bit of naiveté that her youth demands. It’s a nuanced role that her relatively slim cinematic resume would seem to point against but she manages to upstage two actors with Oscars on their mantle. It’s in Jeff Bridges where the film rests.
True Grit is remembered mainly for Wayne in the title role and any actor stepping into the role has large shoes to fill. Bridges is perhaps the best candidate to step into the role because he has the dramatic gravitas to not shrink in the role like many actors would. He manages to outshine Wayne in the acting department, which isn’t an easy feat. Wayne may not have been the best dramatic actor but he had something Bridges can’t match: presence. Wayne is a cinematic tour de force no matter what film or role he’s in, the sort of charismatic leading man that Hollywood gets once in a generation. Bridges isn’t that type of leading man; he manages to bring out the humanity in Cogburn, a drunken man who has seen more death and bad acts than any man ought to. Bridges is strong in the role in a brilliant performance but he’s not John Wayne, nor does he try to be. He brings a different approach to Cogburn, going with a more world-weary approach as opposed to doing what Wayne did and just bring out a slightly darker version of a stock character.
The film’s only downside is that in upgrading the protagonists for the film, the Coens haven’t brought in actors of similar talent on the other side of the equation nor do they give them any significant screen time. Pepper and Brolin are strong character actors but aren’t given enough time on screen to really cement who they are. They’re briefly mentioned in the film’s first two acts and then dealt with in a short third act. They’re almost generic bad guys brought in because they’re needed, as opposed to being there because they’re driving the plot. The film comes in under two hours at 110 minutes and some more screen time for these two could’ve been used. It’s not as if the Coens aren’t familiar with giving a film like this enough room to breathe.
For the most part the Coens bring out the sort of big, epic feel to the Western that they did with No Country for Old Men. This has many similar moments and camera work, including a handful of beautiful landscape shots framing the trio on horseback, and it’s obvious the Oscar winning brothers are going for an epic western to match their epic crime film. There are lots of elements from No Country in this film, as they’ve brought out similar types of character building moments and cinematography to this film from that one. True Grit is a good film, and a remake worthy of the original, but it seems to try to reach for heights of brilliance that it can never grasp.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen Notable Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper Writer(s): Joel and Ethan Coen based off the novel “True Grit” by Charles Portis
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.