Here's Matt's review of the Coen Brothers' new film, True Grit, in theatres now. The review appeared in The Huntsville Item this morning.
It’s tricky business trying to convince someone that a remake, particularly a remake of one of John Wayne’s seminal films, is worth their time, especially when you’re a person who’s spent years declaiming against most remakes at the movies. The remake stigma – “Why can’t Hollywood come up with new ideas?” “They’ll never replace the original,” etc. etc. – has been clinging to Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit since it was announced they were making it. Even when the stellar cast was named, even when the trailers showed promise, those whispers continued: “But it’s a remake. I just don’t care for remakes.”
Thankfully, the release of the flick seems to be proving most of those whispers wrong. If you’re still on the fence, consider that there are exceptions to the “Remakes Are Dumb” rule. Huge exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions are a re-imagining for a new age (Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead is a good example of this), sometimes they’re just a chance to have fun with ideas we already know we love. Sometimes, as is the case with True Grit, it’s a chance to create a more faithful adaptation of the source material (Charles Portis’ 1968 novel), and to refresh and reinvigorate a faithful old genre: the Western revenge tale.
In post-Civil War Arkansas, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), is traveling to settle her father’s affairs after his murder at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired man who shot him after an argument. After making arrangements for her father’s body, Mattie sets her sights on revenge, and seeks out someone to help her bring Chaney to justice. After hearing that he’s the “meanest” of the U. S. Marshals, she seeks to hire Marshal Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken, overweight, one-eyed lawman who, after persistent pestering from Mattie, agrees to accompany her into Indian Territory on Chaney’s trail.
Also on Chaney’s trail is a flashy, cocky Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon). He’s been hunting Chaney for months, and while Mattie believes the man that killed her father to be a buffoon, La Boeuf cautions that he’s much more, that the buffoonery is only an act, that Chaney is actually a cold, calculated killer who murdered a Texas State Senator months before. La Boeuf urges Mattie to go home to her mother, and he and Cogburn even attempt to set out on the trail early and leave her behind. Mattie, with the help of her new pony, refuses to be shaken from their side, and the adventure into the wilderness in search of a killer begins.
Fans of the John Wayne version will find many recognizable chunks of the story still intact, including the famous “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” scene. Where the Coens shove off into new territory is in the film’s tone. While Cogburn was undoubtedly the driving force of the first film, the Coens focus much of their energy on Mattie, who narrated the original Portis novel. Everything happens through her eyes, colored by her determined, unshakeable desire to avenge her father. This not only makes the film more emotionally resonant, but also funnier, as Mattie observes the macho foibles of Cogburn and La Boeuf trying to outride, outshoot, and out-tough one another.
The film is also decidedly darker than its predecessor. The original True Grit, though it deals with dark themes, is bright, brisk, often almost hopeful. This True Grit, seen through the lens of brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, is gloomy, dim and crawling with shadows. Combine this with the Coen’s insistence on a more accurate depiction of the brutally desperate American West, and the result is a film that makes its predecessor look tame.
The entire cast is perfect, but no one can eclipse the daring, iconic performance of Bridges. John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn was John Wayne with an eye patch. Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is unrecognizable as Jeff Bridges. He disappears into the character, inhabits him, transforms into him completely. It’s another landmark performance from one of the greatest American actors. Steinfeld could be commended just for keeping up with the heavyweights that surround her in the flick, but she manages much more. Her vision of Mattie is nuanced, bold and wise beyond her years, just as the character should be. Brolin is wonderful, redeeming himself for the disaster of Jonah Hex earlier this year, and Damon proves he can do Westerns.
It was inevitable that any major discussion on True Grit would have to involve comparisons to the original, but it’s a shame if that’s the only place the discussion goes. There are parallels, to be sure, but the Coens’ True Grit is a different, more cinematic world, filled with breathtaking images, brilliant dialogue and all the love that comes with two fans of the genre working at the top of their game. It’s still amusing and amazing that two Jewish boys from Minnesota have made some of the great Southern films of our time (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men are just two examples). True Grit fits that bill, but it goes beyond. In their first exercise in straight genre filmmaking, working against history and cynicism, the Coen Brothers have managed to create a classic of Western cinema.
Matt’s Call: Easily one of the best films of the year, and the best Western made since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven nearly two decades ago. Don’t let your devotion to The Duke cause you to miss it.