Time Just Gets Away From Us
Rooster Cogburn is a real son-of-a-bitch. He’s overweight, drunk, and lives by his own code.
Thanks to two widely disparate screen adaptations of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit, Marshal Cogburn is also one of the most iconic characters of the western genre. In 1969, Marshall Cogburn was portrayed by John Wayne. It was the performance that won the screen icon his lone Oscar as his career was winding down and at time when Hollywood was changing. In 2010, he is played by Jeff Bridges. After winning an Oscar for Crazy Heart last year, Bridges is experiencing a career resurgence.
Both men are screen icons and they bring their own personas to the character. You cannot find two screen personas further apart than the Duke and the Dude. If anything their performances, given the respective time periods, directors, supporting cast, and script, are exactly on par. Bridges stands out because he is more of an actor than Wayne ever was. And Wayne stands out because he is the very definition of a Hollywood star.
By now the two versions of True Grit have been thoroughly discussed and dissected. What distinguishes Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of True Grit is that all the pieces – performance, script, visuals – seamlessly fit together. The Coens’ True Grit is proof that when done right the western, which was once the greatest of the Hollywood genres, can still shine above the competition. True Grit still has some of that Coen flair. It’s not as flashy or quirky as the other Coens’ movies, but it is there. Beginning with an advertising campaign that evoked the image of Johnny Cash, the Coens have made sure that this western stands out.
Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl determined to avenge her father’s death. She needs a man with “true grit” to catch the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and she quite stubbornly hires the aforementioned Rooster Cogburn (Bridges). Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also tracking Chaney and he is less than keen to be joined by a teenage girl on their hunt for Chaney. The unorthodox trio eventually catches up with Chaney who has teamed up Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who needs to be in more movies, stat) and his gang, leading to the showdown of all showdowns.
Steinfeld, who was 13 during filming, plays the part of precocious, stubborn yet still naive Mattie perfectly. She holds her own in scenes with Hollywood veterans Bridges, Damon, Brolin, and Pepper. You could even say that she steals scene after scene from them with the right amount of grit herself. The film is told from Mattie’s point of view and never leaves it, a that only adds to the realism that defines this True Grit. There is no sugarcoating this world; the violence is there and the film ends with on a somber note about the passing of time.
Credit for this perfect realism can almost single-handedly be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins. This is how a western should look.