“When good men do nothing,” the saying goes, “the wicked prosper.”
Deep down that rabbit hole goes the Old West remake “True Grit,” a fantastic new film unfortunately overlooked by audiences this holiday season but hopefully not overlooked when Oscar nominations are announced next month.
John Wayne won the Academy Award for his portrayal of U.S. Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn in the original, 1970 version of “True Grit,” and though Jeff Bridges is admirable enough as the new “Rooster,” the modern version is truly stolen by the stoic, but brilliant performance of youngster Hailee Steinfeld.
The 14-year-old, homeschooled Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls auditioning for the role of Mattie Ross, the headstrong daughter of a man murdered who would see her father’s death avenged. Steinfeld has already won or been nominated for 16 acting awards for her portrayal of Ross, and her stunning performance should be considered when the golden statuettes come around again.
The film does have its flaws, including both Bridges and Matt Damon occasionally mumbling their lines beyond comprehension, the complete waste of Josh Brolin as forgettable bad guy Tom Chaney and a handful of meaningless characters that bafflingly add nothing to the storyline, but Steinfeld and a masterfully written, intelligent script more than make up for the flaws.
On that note, the dialogue in “True Grit” is sheer brilliance – crafted to reflect not only the time period, but also a classic poetry of speech, almost like a Jane Austen version of the Old West, where characters converse in swift, rich vocabulary infused with meaning without the need for overacting.
Out of the mouth of the steadfast Mattie Ross, the dialogue embodies the saying, “Why increase the volume of your voice when you should instead increase the merit of your argument?” Her negotiations with a local horse trader are so tightly written, her scenes with him alone are worth the price of admission.
But back to the moral of the story.
“True Grit” literally begins with a biblical quote that sets the tone for the entire film: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).
In the town where her father was slain, Mattie Ross, alas, can find no one who is “righteous” to go after the murderer, who has fled into Indian territory. Nonetheless, “bold as a lion,” she wrangles, wiggles and wills together a posse of three that would give chase.
Three flawed characters – the revenge-minded Ross, the drunken lawman “Rooster” Cogburn and the boastful, sometimes arrogant Texas Ranger LaBoeuf – pursue the murderer in an uneasy alliance deep into the wilderness.
For the most part, the movie’s worldview harkens back to the old Westerns from which it derives its story – hard-nosed, hard-luck and hard-livin’ good guys ride into the sunset in pursuit of dastardly, dirty bad guys. Along the way, the flawed good guys face a gut-check, a moral crisis where they must either rise to the silver badge on their chest or fade away into the booze and boorishness that threaten to tarnish it.
In the end, the film resolves in both redemption and warning. Lawmen who pursue the bad guys in fulfillment of God’s given role to government (“a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” – Romans 13:4) overcome their flaws and remember how to be heroes, and a revenge-minded young lady who pursues personal vendetta pays a price for taking justice upon herself.
For these reasons and many more, “True Grit” is a film worthy of a more gilded age of moviemaking. And while I won’t compare it to the John Wayne original, not being a fan of Westerns myself, this version may have nonetheless given me a new appreciation for six-shooters, sagebrush and riding off into the sunset.
- “True Grit” contains a small handful of minor profanities and obscenities.
- The movie does contain, however, a fair amount of violence, blood and gore. Most of the violence is gunfights and shooting, but there are also a pair of rotting corpses, fingers severed on screen, a stabbing, blood and other gory elements. In addition, three men are seen hanged, and young Mattie Ross is both placed in imminent peril and repeatedly spanked with a switch in a rough way by an adult man.
- Sexuality in the film is limited to mention of “stealing a kiss” and a single lewd joke. Neither romance nor immodest dress factor in whatsoever.
- Furthermore, the film is filled with biblical references and quotes, as well as period-appropriate, reverent acknowledgements of God. There is no overt occult content, neither is there any reference to Native American religion, despite the film taking place in “Indian territory.”