the original film, I love the Coen Brothers, and I'm a fan of Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, so I ignored my reservations and visited my local cinema house.
For those that are unfamiliar with the plot, young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), aged fourteen, goes to the town where her recently deceased father's corpse waits for her. Quite the little businesswoman, she sends the body back to her hometown, buys and sells some horses, and goes to the sheriff, expecting to hear news about the search for her father's killer. The news is that the cowardly killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), has left the state and entered Indian Territory, where the law is unlikely to pursue him. Mattie wants to see Chaney die for his crimes, and she learns that she can hire a US Marshall to act as a bounty hunter for her. There are competent trackers, and all-around good men that are well-suited for the job, but Mattie opts for the meanest Marshall around: the surly, one-eyed drunk, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
It takes quite a bit of convincing, but Mattie manages to hire Cogburn for the job. However, no amount of convincing talk will make him follow her wishes to the letter, which include taking her with him on the manhunt and making sure that Chaney dies for killing her father and not any other crime. After all, a Texas Ranger named La Boef (Matt Damon) wants to bring Chaney to justice in Texas, where a sizable reward would be split between him and Cogburn. And, as for the idea of Mattie joining the manhunt in person, that's just ridiculous. But, as many older men find out as this film progresses, Mattie Ross is not a ridiculous young woman, but someone with the will to get exactly what she wants.
This film is certainly centered around the story of Mattie Ross, but the star of the film is definitely Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges does not disappoint in his role, and he manages to not echo John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance. Bridges' take on the character can be summed up as simply "dirty." He looks fat and greasy, he fights dirty, and he is generally a rough, unlovable person. And that all works out great; he's believably tough, socially awkward, and genuinely funny, depending on the situation. And Bridges' physical acting was superb; he walked the walk of an aged roughneck very well and this might be the most believable "guy with an eyepatch" role I have ever seen. The only thing I didn't like was his bizarre mumbling, but more on that later. Hailee Steinfeld does a great job as the calm, collected, and damn stubborn Mattie. She manages to be stubborn, persistent, and pushy, but still likable. This is a great role with depth for a young actress, and Steinfeld (in her feature film debut) does a fantastic job. Matt Damon made his character less charming than Glen Campbell did in the original, and I liked his character far better because of it. I like Damon best when he is not trying to be funny, and he comes across as earnest and occasionally exasperated here, which I thought fit this film well. The rest of the supporting actors have limited screen time, but benefit from the Coen's tendency to make their bit role colorful. Barry Pepper looked every part the Wild West nomad as the villainous (Ned) Pepper. Josh Brolin played his character as fairly dim-witted and brutish, which I thought was a good choice. Domhall Gleeson (Brendan's son and Bill Weasley in the latest Harry Potter) is stuck with a fairly whiny role as the doomed Moon, but I thought he handled the part well and didn't overact, which is high praise, considering what they do to his character.
Joel and Ethan Coen did a great job writing and directing the film. Every single character in the film is memorable, many are funny, but the viewer is never distracted from the main story. Why does Rooster Cogburn go out of his way to kick those Indian children? It doesn't matter, it's just something he does; on with the plot! They got a very good performance from a very inexperienced actress, and they let Bridges have fun as a crotchety old man. More importantly, though, is the overall tone of the film. The word "quirky" is often (justly) applied to Coen Brothers projects because they enjoy going off on tangents and having a cast of extremely colorful characters. Here, they are able to keep their cast of goofy characters, but they all serve the plot, so they don't feel like diversions. The cinematography, done by frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, is noticeably impressive; this movie looks and feels as filthy and smelly as the Old West must have truly been, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't full of harsh, broad, and beautiful landscapes. This might be the best looking Coen film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (also shot by Deakins), and it is perhaps their best balance of gritty stories and funny characters to date.
Now, let's discuss the mumbling. When I saw the trailer for this movie, I assumed that Bridges just had his cheeks full of chewing tobacco, because the Old West was a disgusting place and chaw is nauseatingly fitting for that time and place. Sadly, it was simply a choice by the actor and the directors. I guess it could be the side effect of being a rough-and-tumble character in an age where medical attention was both lacking and deficient; theoretically, they could have invented a back story for Rooster than involved a few broken jaws that healed crooked. Whatever the reason, it was kind of obnoxious, especially when it obscured a witty quip from Bridges. Later in the film, Damon also joins the mushmouth parade, but at least his character is given an excuse. These atypical verbal deliveries may have been realistic for the times, but I found them generally irritating and actually kept me from understanding some key moments of dialogue.
How does this stand up to the original? Quite well, actually. The performances (mumbles aside) are all very good, and Bridges does a good job with an interesting character. Honestly, I think the primary actors are all worthy upgrades over the original film; the supporting cast is far better this time around (although Robert Duvall is still better than Barry Pepper), since the original film had many unmemorable bit players. The one thing that the 1969 film did better was show the developing relationship between Cogburn and Mattie; when John Wayne starts calling her "sister" in the film, you can feel a loving bond in his words. That closeness is not shown in this version, although some affection is clear. I also prefer the ending of the original better (not the climax, but the falling action) because it summed up the story of Mattie and Rooster so well. The Coens made a very grim and gritty Western, but they did so at the cost of the sweet sibling-ish relationship between the two lead characters.
That said, this is a very good movie, and it is a Western that will appeal to those that are not already fans of the genre (read: women). It is funny in many parts, with sharp dialogue and three characters that mesh well together. It is painfully raw and brutal in other parts, with uncompromising violence and some truly nightmarish dental prosthetics. And, despite all of that, it is a story of accomplishment, above all else. Does this eclipse the original movie? No, but it certainly makes a case as a deserving peer.