“Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”
Finally, the brotherly filmmaking team of Joel and Ethan Coen has given us what we have been waiting for these past decades: a really good Western. The genre that was once the Hollywood Western picture has faded from a respectable, popular box-office buster into obscurity and derelict. The Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 Western classic, True Grit (which starred John Wayne in his only Oscar-winning role), is probably the best Western we can hope for at this point in time. As we all well know, the American Western film has suffered a severe diminuendo since the 1970s, only sporadically impressing us with motion pictures such as Unforgiven and Silverado. Throughout the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, the quality and quantity of Westerns has decreased drastically. Ironically, the Coen brother’s film that seems to defy the recent history of Westerns is a remake of the movie that was perhaps the pique of Westerns in America. John Wayne’s version of True Grit is without a doubt my favorite Western (and I have no qualms saying that after True Grit, Western movies headed for the tank) and for the most part, the Coen brothers do it justice—combining liberal doses of humor and intense melodramatic, even Biblical themes of retribution, revenge, and justice. That said, there does not seem to be much of a purpose for this movie other than perhaps to bring new awareness to the old one. Nothing new or unexpected really happens and, although just about every single bloviating press release described the film as more of a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’s original novel than a remake of the original film, the new film mimics the old film almost to the letter in some scenes.
This movie is seen through the eyes of the main character Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who also narrates it. After her father is murdered by a drunken outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), this fourteen-year-old girl travels to Fort Smith in order to hire a U.S. Marshal to track down and arrest (or kill) the criminal. Mattie is a headstrong, no nonsense sort of person with a well-developed vocabulary and a high disdain for gobbledygook. The marshal she finds happens to be the drink-loving, oft-married, one-eyed, churlish old curmudgeon Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) who is said to be a man of true grit. After much coaxing from Mattie, Rooster agrees to her proposition to find the murderer, the two soon set out on the trail of Tom Chaney, but tagging along with them is the ever-pompous Texas Ranger who calls himself LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). These three characters are all very well defined, and have such chemistry together that it’s hard not to be won over by them.
Matt Damon plays his part well, and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster much more quiet and mischievous than John Wayne, although he has not nearly the screen presence of his barrel-chested predecessor. None of the acting in this re-imagination is particularly outstanding or better than in the original, except for the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose performance as Mattie far surpasses Kim Darby who originated the character. While Steinfeld’s characterization of Mattie is not really any different than Kim Darby’s, Steinfeld seems to have slightly more charisma and more realization of the character. It reminds me of a story I once heard whose origin I cannot recall wherein a young piano prodigy was allowed to play before a great composer and when he was finished the composer said, “Very good. You can play the notes, someday you may be able to play the music.” Well, Hailee Steinfeld can play the music (if anyone knows the genesis of that story, feel free to leave a comment and tell me). As the trio of hunters moves deeper into the Indian territory, they discover that their quarry has joined a gang led by an age-old enemy of Rooster’s called “Lucky” Ned Pepper, here played by Barry Pepper who seems to be having a fun time imitating the voice inflections and facial expressions of Robert Duvall who played Ned in 1969.
Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon seem to have quite a time bantering with each other about everything from “nationalities” to who can shoot better. The dialogue is written in an almost Melville-like format with nary a contraction, which gives the film a Biblical, Old Testament feel which is further accentuated by the beautiful, subtle musical score by Carter Burwell that sounds not a little like an orchestrated Church hymnal. Perhaps the most obviously striking element of the picture is the cinematography, which seems underexposed, yet still extremely detailed. The combination of dark photography combined with some rather breathtaking shots give this movie perhaps a more (forgive me) “gritty” feel than the first. Still, there seems no purpose in remaking the film until perhaps the final five minutes. I will warn all of you out there who are hoping to see the grandiose, typical John Wayne exit at the end of this movie that no such thing exists in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of the story. Their version of the ending is much less showy, without any sort of Hollywood romanticism. It is perhaps a more realistic and meaningful ending than in the original, and the profound final shot sent chills up my spine. However, a John Wayne movie wouldn’t have been the same without a classic send-off, so I don’t think a more realistic and poetic ending would have been appropriate for that film, but it certainly is here.
As with any remake, True Grit is open to comparison with the original. And in comparison, it’s not bad. Sometimes the story mimics the original a little too much to my liking, and one still has to ask why someone would want to remake the original, but ultimately True Grit is a very satisfying picture, one of the best of the year, and a refreshing rejuvenation for the somnambulant Western genre. Both Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges (and even Josh Brolin I think) give Oscar Nomination-worthy performances, even though Jeff Bridges’s Rooster seems a tad bizarre and morbid at times. If Miss Steinfeld were to get a nomination, as I’m sure she will, she would have my vote. Her portrayal of young Mattie is wonderful, impressive for a fourteen-year-old. Impressive for anyone for that matter. The Coen brothers have crafted a really good, exciting, lyrical and poetic fable of the Old West. They have managed to capture a bygone age in which if you happen to be on the wrong side of justice, be vigilant because whether by the elements, the marshals, or by a fourteen-year-old girl, sooner or later “God’s gonna cut you down.”
“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”—Courtesy of Johnny Cash
Paramount Pictures Presents a Skydance Production
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Dakin Matthews. Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including some disturbing images. Release Date: 22 December 2010