Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys
They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone
Even with someone they love
– Waylon Jennings / Willie Nelson
As a kid, I remember seeing commercials for a Time/Life series of books about the Old West. Those were tough times filled with tough people, like John Wesley Hardin who supposedly “killed forty-three men, one just for snoring too loud.” The Old West probably wasn’t what young fans of The Lone Ranger or even Woody’s Roundup had in mind. It was a harsh, lonely place where even the hardiest men with strong moral codes could lose their way.
This is the setting of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, an unflinching remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic. The story opens with narration from Hattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose father was robbed and shot down in cold blood by outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Hattie (Hailee Steinfeld) sets off to seek retribution, even though she knows she may never see her family again. Hattie is no ordinary young girl. She has seen the worst of what the West has to offer and knows how to play tough. When she asks a local lawman who the best bounty hunters are, he offers up three names, one of which is “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a take-no-prisoners wild card. She obviously chooses to hire him.
Rooster is not one to be ordered around by a young girl but agrees to pursue Chaney. Along the way, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who plans to apprehend Chaney and take him back to Texas to hang, joins the trail. Rooster and LaBoeuf decide to split the ransom in Texas, but Hattie will have none of it. Vengeance is to be hers, and should Rooster try to back out of their agreement, she will charge him with fraud. LaBoeuf decides the other two will hold up his own plans and sets off in search of Chaney on his own.
I found myself both fascinated by the adventures that follow but also overwhelmed by the conditions they endure. How would you go about tracking someone down in those days? These days I can’t visit a new town without my GPS—back then, a wrong turn in the woods could cost you days. For Hattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf, men with guns and horses remain a constant threat, but so do the harsh cold of a desert night and the unfriendly species that inhabit the dark corners.
Rooster Cogburn is, of course, the role John Wayne made famous, and when I heard this movie was coming out, I wondered how Bridges’ performance would be compared. Beyond the eyepatch, the similarity ends. This is the type of role Bridges has grown into. Once the pretty boy leading man, Bridges won a Best Actor award last year for his turn in Crazy Heart as a bearded, gravel-voiced, world-weary traveler—kinda like if his “The Dude” character from Lebowski took a turn for the worse. Here, as in Crazy Heart (not to mention this year’s Tron: Legacy), Bridges not only occupies the role, but I forgot I was watching an actor and saw only the character.
Steinfeld is also a true standout. In her portrayal of Hattie, we see not only an eager, young girl that we want to support but also a confident woman of value and loyalty whom we respect. Even if she doesn’t win the Best Supporting Actress award, I hope to see her again soon.
Worth noting is the bold cinematography that deserves a win, as well. The American West has always lent itself well to amazing visuals. But unlike the blue skies and sweeping vistas of yesteryear, we find ourselves in landscapes both barren and forbidding yet majestic.
The Coen Brothers’ resume is a list of cinematic classics populated by some of the most unbelievable characters out there—Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou; The Hudsucker Proxy; The Big Lebowski. This film is unlike the rest. It involves real people in real situations forced to make tough decisions and question their own abilities in the face of danger. In the West of fiction, the hero smiles proudly as he rides off into the sunset. In reality, I can imagine the West took even the most virtuous of men and women, chewed them up, spit them out, and only the strong ones—the ones with “true grit”—survived.