Many have stated that the Coen's take on Charles Portis' novel was not a remake of the original 1969 film starring John Wayne and Kim Darby. Yet many lines of dialogue and sequences are lifted straight from it verbatim. Granted this also comes from a novel, but truly when you get right down to it, there were only two major differences for the better. And they were Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges.
Venturing out of their territory, the Coen Brothers have this time tackled their second remake--but this time drawing more from a novel--and a true Western unlike "No Country For Old Men" (2007) which was a crime drama. Upon watching the film, you quickly get the sense that this was no ordinary remake, and besides the possibility of being fans of Charles Portis' five novels, they could simply have recognized the potential the story had that wasn't really exploited by director Henry Hathaway in the 1969 version. For that alone it was worth remaking this film. And as usual, there is no sign of discourse between the Coen Brothers in their directorial style. It was very somber and allowed the characters to take the place of action or plot devices. For this was a journey about maturity and friendship of the most awkward kind, and the audience isn't entertained by plot developments along the way, but rather by the repertoire that the trio of Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), and Texas Ranger LeBeouf (Matt Damon) share along the way.
Unlike the original film, the character of fourteen year old Mattie Ross isn't childish like Kim Darby's portrayal was. Hailee is far more firm and can be easily taken seriously as a tough negotiator and rough rider who's out to hire a marshal to pursue her father's killer into the Choctaw Nation. She never comes off as a whiny kid like Darby did frequently, as Darby would complain frequently to Wayne about how people talked to her as if she couldn't handle herself. That's nowhere near what Hailee Steinfeld has done with the character. The closest she comes to acting her age is when she tries to break the tension between Cogburn the drunk and LeBeouf the boaster by bringing up campfire stories or upsetting them by suddenly acting tougher than they are. A source of humor as much as wit for the character. But mostly, you'll be taken off guard by how much beyond her years Hailee acts, and comes across without folly. Among the best first performances, and the best casting in the film. For in this genre, you rarely come across such a character that can be taken as seriously as Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie Ross.
Jeff Bridges is similar in what he did with Rooster Cogburn. For unlike John Wayne whose performance was akin to many other characters he played, Jeff Bridges pulls off Rooster as he should be: drunk throughout. A washed up marshal who's in his twilight, yet still has good aim and could care less for technicalities in the law. But he was such a hit with audiences back in 1969 that Wayne reprised the role in 1975 for an original movie. So knowing that and the fact that Bridges actually got the character right should be seen as a major plus for skeptics. But again, everything you like about Rooster Cogburn comes from his drunkenness and attitude which shine brightest during his constant unnecessary rivalry with LeBeouf rather than anything he specifically does in the film. It's all in his attitude. So yes, the Dude became the Duke for a film, and trumped him even in a memorable role which makes the film all the more realistic.
The third surprise was perhaps Josh Brolin's take on the wandering criminal Tom Chaney. For having previously seen him as average country boy Llewellyn Moss in the Coen's recent crime drama "No Country For Old Men," then seeing the exact opposite with a grungy voice was interesting. Same can be said of Barry Pepper's role of Lucky Ned Pepper, the wild crook who looks to have been living off the land far too long. So overall, you can tell that Mary Zophres did her job outfitting these characters to fit the parts perfectly. Point being that near everything in this film seemed vintage. For this certainly was not a backlot western with filming taking place mostly in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Austin & Granger, Texas. Mostly the New Mexico wilderness was utilized here. And it looked stunning.
Apart from the acting, wardrobe, directing, and vintage look of Jess Gonchor's sets, they were all beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Like his previous works with the Coens, and his style in "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" (2007), he seeks to capture the natural vistas of the western terrain. Letting the harsh conditions of 1878 winter speak for itself, he doesn't go over the top in his shots. Many are simple lead-ins to new scenes, but each lead-in captures the essence of the environment to perfection. You're never second guessing his style with ideas of your own. Every shot that should have been utilized was. And you can tell the difference between his work and the average film. Especially when it mostly takes place in the wilderness. There it always looks the best. Deakins always sets out to put the audience right there with the characters, and he succeeds every time.
Overall, this was one of the best modern westerns ever. From acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and Carter Burwell's vintage musical score, there's little if anything to complain about in this movie. It's a true western which trumps the original by far and will be around for generations to come.