A film review by Craig J. Koban December 30, 2010
2010, PG-13, 110 mins.
2010, PG-13, 110 mins.
Rooster Cogburn: Jeff
Tom Chaney: Josh
Lucky Ned: Barry
Mattie Ross: Hailee Steinfeld
What an audaciously original move it was for the Coen
Brothers to re-work a classic western that many old-school fans of the
genre hold dear to their hearts. One
thing needs to mentioned, though, right from the onset if my review for this
film: TRUE GRIT is not in any way shape or form a slavish or wasteful
remake of the cherished 1969 John Wayne western of the same name that
finally netted The Duke a late career Oscar.
I would more aptly describe this Coen iteration as an adaptation of
the original source material, Charles Portis' 1968 novel.
True to their claims, the brothers have gone out of their way to
state that their TRUE GRIT has been ostensibly designed to be a worthy and
loyal companion piece to its literary antecedent.
am I kidding…almost no lay filmgoer is going to approach this film
without seeing it as a remake or drawing some comparisons to Wayne’s
version. How could they not?
The iconic visage of The Duke carved out one of his most memorable
screen creations in playing the one-eyed, frequently inebriated, and
morally questionable U.S. Marshall Rueben J “Rooster” Cogburn, so the
loving collective memories of Wayne aficionados will certainly go into the
Coens’ TRUE GRIT with an awful lot of hasty suspicion.
Even though I am by no means a staunch fan of the original, even I
went into this TRUE GRIT-redux with some reservations: After all, why
would filmmakers of the high and esteemed pedigree of the Coens that have
made some of the seminal films of the last 30 years want to regress into
making a genre effort that would draw so many comparisons to the previous
filmed version of the material?
simple answer, I guess, is that…because they can.
On one token, their TRUE GRIT is arguably the first straightforward
and no-nonsense attempt on their part to make a clear-cut genre film. Yet, for as undemanding as the film superficially comes
across, the esoteric DNA of the Coens breathes through every pore of
this film: TRUE GRIT is just as cheekily macabre and subversive as anything
else they have made. Furthermore,
the pair shows their own grit and fortitude for doing something that the
original sort of failed to do, which is being smart and true to Portis’ book. The Coens intuitively understand here that the real emotional
epicenter of seeing the novel through to the big screen was to not focus on the Cogburn persona, but rather on the voice and presence of
its young adolescent female character.
from the character focus and an ending that approaches melancholic beauty
and sadness, the Coen Brothers version still has many overall
similarities to the ’69 original in terms of its basic plot.
Both films are essentially tales of retribution and revenge:
It is near the end of the 19th Century in Oklahoma and
14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, the acting find of the year;
more on her later) is dealing with the murder of her father. The perpetrator is a wily ol’ drifter named Tom Chaney
(Josh Brolin, slowly becoming a confident and reliable Coen regular)
that has fled into the infamously dangerous “Indian Territory” where
he hooks up with a gang of grizzled and gnarly misfits led by Lucky Ned
Pepper (played well by the borderline unrecognizable Barry Pepper).
Mattie wants one thing: to see Chaney pay and pay dearly.
local authorities don’t seem to take Mattie or her concerns seriously,
despite the fact that see has the resources and a headstrong maturity and
feistiness that’s hard to refute. One
local catches her attention in particular, the eye-patched, grubby,
semi-portly, and frequently drunk Marshall Rooster Cogburn (played with a
tough as nails presence that even The Duke would like by Jeff Bridges) and
Mattie takes it upon herself to make several attempts at hiring him as a
bounty hunter to entrap Chaney. Although Cogburn seems too disinterested and busy to oblige in
Mattie’s offer, he begrudgingly does so when offered a hard-to-ignore
fee. They have some company,
though, in the form of a do-gooder and prideful Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf
(Matt Damon) that wants Chaney for the murder of a Texas Senator.
Mattie wants to see Chaney burn in her own state for her father’s
murder, which places her and Cogburn’s mission in direct opposition to
areas in particular make this Coen Brothers appropriation of TRUE GRIT
triumphantly rise far above both expectations of the genre and the overall
quality of the ’69 incarnation: Firstly, this new TRUE GRIT is to be
savored for the its eccentric and oddball characters and the sort of turn
of the century vernacular they so fluently speak in, which gives the film
a sense of texture and nuance. The
richness, color, and buoyancy of the dialogue exchanges in the film
approach reach a level of lyrical comic poetry at times.
Some of the film’s greatest scenes display this richness and
attention to the language of the period, like one bravura exchange –
handled with a sly and observantly acerbic edge by the Coens – where
Mattie bargains with a horse trader early in the story, during which the
young girl uses a remarkable grasp of logical reason to outfox the veteran
businessman in ways that he never thought possible.
How utterly wonderful is it to bare witness to a western where the
words are as patiently and lovingly rendered as its visuals?
this brings me to the second area where the Coens show their gamesmanship
for the film: This TRUE GRIT
is a sparse and economical technical masterpiece for the duo for how they
effortlessly and evocatively recreate the west.
We’ve all seen countless obligatory wild west towns in the
movies, but the Coens envision their version of this iconography by substantially
opening things up by making Fort Smith, Arkansas breathe like a tangible
and sprawling town that never once feels like a backlot bit of production
fakery. Helping them
immeasurably, as always, is the presence of Roger Deakins as
cinematographer – a frequent Coen Brothers co-conspirator – that paints the screen
with simple, but beguiling images of the frontier.
His painterly eye for the panorama vistas of the harsh and jagged
landscapes the characters populate induce a sense of awe and grandeur,
even during the most plainly rendered of compositions (see the film’s last few
shots). And just look how
much atmosphere and texture he gives even rudimentary moments like an
early courtroom scene, where he bathes the room with a layer of sun
Jeff Bridges is occupying the mightily gargantuan and mythic shoes of The
Duke by playing Cogburn, but Bridges too has made a career of being an
intense screen presence. His
performance of Cogburn is not about mimicking Wayne (although the obvious
quirks and wardrobe choices are similar), but Bridges achieves the
thankless and impossible task of making his Cogburn all his own: with a
raspy and gravely intonation that feels like the product of about a dozen
hangovers, Bridges is an unmitigated hoot as the rugged and tough
Marshall. Even though he is a
man of many, shall we say, guilty pleasures and vices, there remains a
redeeming level of chivalry and nobility to the man.
That, and when Bridges spits out teeth-clenched tough guy classic
lines during a shootout like, “Fill yer hands, you sons of bitches,” it’s really hard
not be taken in for the ride. There
are very few actors that can play unattractive slobs and infuse a sense of
cool and hip swagger into them like Bridges can here.
Daman – who has emerged as of late as one of the more dignified and
reliable character actors working today – is a scream playing his
totally-by-the-book and honor bound Texas Ranger.
Josh Brolin steps into the shoes of his immoral and despicable
rogue with ease and poise and, compellingly enough, even manages to show a
sprinkle of humanity in a few subtle moments.
TRUE GRIT, however, is a tour de force showpiece for the
14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose IMBD page mostly lists her past work
with some bit parts on TV, but she gives on the year’s most assured and
confident performances as the young wiper-snapper that serves as the
film’s focal point of interest. Rarely
have I seen such a young and inexperienced film actress rise to the
occasion by being so poised, so rock steady, and so convincing in a role.
To witness Steinfeld’s flawless and fluent handling of her
character’s saucy, razor sharp, and smart period dialect and hold her
own with of the likes of Damon, Brolin, and Bridges reveals her to be
a major star in the making. There
is not one moment in TRUE GRIT where the audience is not fixated on this
limitless talented and affable screen presence.
people that go in expecting this film to be like the cherished TRUE GRIT of
old will be disappointed. Yet,
for the rest of us more discerning filmgoers, the Coens have really
outdone themselves and defied expectations by making their TRUE GRIT stand
proudly and successfully on its own two feet as a fitting homage to Portis’
novel. As consummate film
craftsmen, the Coens are more than equal to the task of making an
opulent western that is a rich and splendid tableau of its period, but
where they really succeed is in how meticulously they absorb in the finer
and more intriguing details of the novel that inspired them.
In all, the Coens score a real artistic coup here for how
resoundingly they separate their effort from the very famous previous one,
which is no easy task, indeed. Very
few remakes (if I have to dignify it with that inaccurate moniker) far
exceed the original, but this 21st Century GRIT certainly
does…and then some.