Released in 1969, the original True Grit came during at transitional stage for American cinema. In the same year that saw the release of anti-establishment films like Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Wayne's first and only Oscar win is seen as a last gasp of Hollywood's old guard venerating one of its most indomitable figures. Indeed, the ultimate irony is that the same year Wayne won best actor (for a performance that essentially amounted to self-parody), the X-rated revisionist Western Midnight Cowboy won best picture.
The Coen brothers conspicuously craft their 2010 updated adaptation of Charles Portis' novel in a similarly progressive, oxymoronic vein: a traditional Western set during the twilight of the Old West. Between an opening scene that features an arrival by railway and an epilogue in which icons of the era are relegated to fodder for a traveling road show is a story line about duty and honor driven not by men on horseback but a headstrong 14-year-old girl.
After her dad is gunned down by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) takes the train to Fort Smith, Ark., to tend to her father's affairs. Endowed with a steely countenance and rapid-fire parlance, Mattie identifies her father's body and barters over funeral expenses in the same breath. In her matter-of-fact mission to see justice served, Mattie hires the irascible, drunk and one-eyed federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down and capture Chaney. There is one strict condition: She must accompany him for the hunt.
Although the film is constructed like a conventional Western, the Coen bros pointedly eschew the romanticizing often applied in this genre. Money—not principle—is the primary motivation for Cogburn and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a preening, bounty-chasing Texas Ranger. The departed hold little value except to scavengers and bounty hunters.
"I don't know him," Cogburn sneers, realizing there's no reward attached to a cadaver he finds hanging from a tree. Elsewhere, he violates a promise to give an adversary a Christian burial by saying, "Ground's too hard ... he should have died during the summer."
With an eye patch, a guttural growl and a withered physique, Bridges' Cogburn resembles John Wayne's resurrected remains more than the Duke himself. Even by the time of this movie's 1880s setting, Cogburn is a dying breed—LaBoeuf has only derision for his tales of the Civil War, and neither man quite knows what to make of Mattie.
This is also one of the few Westerns to succeed without a formidable and/or charismatic villain. Instead, True Grit focuses on three individuals who—as they traverse untamed terrain captured by Roger Deakins' usual sumptuous lens—ascertain the true nature of one other's character. The affinity Cogburn develops for Mattie is not born out of some paternal instinct, but rather his recognition and appreciation for her untainted determination. It is a trait Cogburn believed he'd lost long ago at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. When he carries Mattie across field and plain in search of safety, he's trying to save not just her but the soul of a bygone age. That spirit will live on, but Cogburn discovers—as do we—that this is truly no country for old men.