While Americans theoretically love westerns, they usually don’t do well at the box office and are therefore, rarely made. It’s a shame that this genre which is so quintessentially associated with our country gets brushed aside so often. Most of the ones that actually are popular are products of a bygone era. ‘True Grit’ was one of John Wayne’s most popular films, which is a statement in itself. Our friends the Coen brothers saw fit to remake this film.

14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) goes into town to collect the body of her father who was gunned down and robbed by a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Instead of just settling the family affairs as simply as possible, she seeks justice. Her inquiries lead her to hire drunken U.S. Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Also in the mix is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is out to collect a bounty on Chaney. Mattie is very insistent upon following the men and though they may resist and wish she wasn’t so insistent, they accept her company on their trips to track down their man.

Will they find Chaney somewhere in the wilderness? Will Mattie’s stubbornness get her into more trouble than she can handle? Are there other outlaws roaming the open range? If this is Indian country, why aren’t there any Native Americans roaming around? How much whiskey can Rooster put away in the course of one movie?

This version is less gussied up and polished than the 60’s original. There is some gore and some grievous bodily injuries that are suffered. No one really escapes unscathed. Rooster isn’t a spotless giant among men, he is a sloppy, weathered drunk. The overall approach is to present a less pasteurized version of the old west, one that is probably significantly more historically accurate.  It’s also closer to the Charles Portis novel (read it!).

The Coens have made fine livings with their sense of humor and it is again utilized here. The combative banter between LaBeouf and Rooster is funny as is the level of annoyance that builds within Rooster because of Mattie’s aggressive approach.  Her manner of speaking and sense of propriety is far beyond her years and separates her from her rough and tumble surroundings.

Maybe this story isn’t as off-the-wall or as daring as what the Coens usually make. It’s really a straightforward genre tale that is well done. Part of their approach lately has seemed to involve taking more chances. Well, for a duo that is expected to reinvent the wheel, playing it straight may have been the most surprising thing to do. The same can be said for remaking a movie that is generally accepted as being a classic.

Jeff Bridges was an appropriate choice for Cogburn. This role probably isn’t too far off from being what he is naturally like. The almost always underrated Matt Damon gives LaBeouf an air of superiority that makes him stick out like a sore thumb given his surroundings, but that’s the point of the character. Hailee Steinfeld’s Academy Award nominated performance is perfectly precocious and her character mentally runs circles around most of the adults which is amusing if not unexpected. For all of the fuss that is made about Tom Chaney, he is only on screen for about 15 or 20 of the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s not a bad approach because our protagonists are always as step behind him and we, the viewers, are as well.

Special features include: a behind the scenes look at Mattie Ross, a conversation with the costume designer, recreating Fort Smith, and an examination of the cast.

While the plots of the two films play out extremely closely, there are some reasonably minor changes that have a big impact on the tones. No real spoilers shall come from me, though.

If you’re the type to like your movies to be old-fashioned and in compliance with the Hayes Code (a now antiquated set of rules of decency for film), then you may prefer the original. If you’re a fan of the book (which both movies were based on) and are willing to accept a less glamorized approach at an old favorite story, this should get high marks from you. Whichever you prefer, they’re both good westerns which means that everybody wins!

Rated PG-13          110 minutes          2010

When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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