My apprehension with respect to the Coen Brothers has been well documented over the past year on this blog. I often contend that they are masters of the tease who collapse onto themselves when it comes time for the pay off. Their interwoven tales of literary references and societal analogies get lost in harsh contextual backlog of self-important rants. Any messages they may have originally intended crumble underneath the weight of seemingly rushed finales which usually include the removal of key characters at warp speed and hanging plot points. So when I heard they were remaking the 1969 western True Grit, I had my reservations.
Arguably their most accessible work, Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) enter into the basic foundations of western ideology in their 2010 adaptation. Removing the more family friendly comedy elements that sustained the original, True Grit is a emotionally insightful look at the western lawman. With the precision of a fine tuned pianist, the writing-directing team balance their patented elusive, high-brow, dark comedy with a beautifully captured focus on characters and motivations.
At times morose, but seldom lackluster, the 2010 True Grit installment is given a decisive mood which the original film lacked. The tale of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), and her hunt to inflict retribution upon Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for the murder of her father, is one of awakening and loss. Seemingly stoic, Ross is forced to face real world pain and loss as she encounters a collection of vile and sycophantic criminals on the run. Teaming up with the hard-nosed US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and reluctantly the Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), her business savvy and reclusive lifestyle is put to the ultimate test.
In her first major acting role, Steinfeld replaces the bossy nature of Darby's incarnation with a more personable and humane take on Ross. The accessibility of her character solidifies the connection between the audience and the narrative. With the exception of only one scene, and a couple of shots, she is the focal point through which all the events that transpire are presented. The audience is only privy to those conversations that she can hear, and view violence the way she does. As such the violent acts are a powerful thing. A gunshot doesn't merely end with a spot of blood and a fall. Each shot is a thundering bang, each drop of blood a splattering spray, met with screams of anguish and lingering death
Perhaps it is par for the course that the action scenes which take place away from the eyes of Mattie Ross are relatively tame. Though over the top, both deal with violence through the lens of those who deal with it on a daily basis. Thus enters the much coveted Jeff Bridges with a powerhouse performance as Rooster Cogburn.
Bridges' take on Rooster Cogburn is as stubborn and drunk as Wayne's ever was. However there's an added element of history which supplies layers and insight to Cogburn that make him equally lovable and contemptible. He can be audacious and vile, but underneath it all he has a sense justice that, while not unwavering, carries with it a strong sense of decency. Making him the perfect match for the flamboyant and boisterous LeBoeuf. Damon tones down LeBoeuf's incessant self-obsession in favor of a more intellectual cowboy. LeBoeuf counters Cogburn's down to earth, everyday man, style with a more upper class lawman. He makes up for his rash and lack of viable experience with charisma and resoluteness.
The back and forth banter between Cogburn and LeBoeuf stood out to me as one of the film's most enjoyable aspects. Hilarious, and yet eye opening, they provide the film a much needed breakdown of archaic western mythos. Neither character is without flaws, many of which we are shown, and therein lies our desire to want to know them better. Unfortunately, at the cost of these diatribes, we lose one aspect of the original 1969 film I admired - the platonic bond that builds between Cogburn and Ross.
Stepping into the villainous role of Tom Chaney, Josh Brolin uses his (more or less) five minutes to absolute perfection. He is everything the preceding conversations would lead you to believe, and more. With even less screen time, Barry Pepper steps into the difficult to fill shoes of Robert Duvall as Lucky Ned Pepper, adding to the films list of memorable performances. From the closeups of his spitting and mangled teeth, the makeup team gave Ned a vagrant look and Pepper had the gumption to match it. Together they give a brief introspective to the products of a world split between the lawful and the lawless.
Using dialogue that at times borders on poetic, the Coen Brothers do an outstanding job of capturing this world. The characters are not your general 'ho-hum' western stereotypes, but instead use words riddled in syllables and pronunciation (you'd be surprised how rare that is for a western). Winter as the backdrop to their journey provides a chilling, dark, and foreboding visual tone. It creates a since of isolation and barrenness to scenery that would otherwise seem welcoming. As the film progresses, this isolation becomes more and more apparent. Wide shots of towns and landscapes give way to closeups and reaction shots.
Which is one of the primary reasons why I find the final shootout equally appealing and frustrating. The iconic scene of Cogburn charging four men head on, dual wielding guns, is as much apart of the True Grit nostalgia as any scene in the film. Yet it feels so disassociated with the tone of the rest of the film, I can't but feel another approach would have made more sense. Sure you may lose some marketability, but I truly feel it would have been a more satisfying conclusion.
Still, no matter how I slice it, True Grit is one of the best films I've seen this year. The mix of comedy, tragedy, and visual prowess provides a versatile viewing experience unlike any other film I've witnessed this year. It resonates on a deep level with wonderfully incandescent characters and beautiful imagery. It is my firm opinion that True Grit ranks among the upper echelon of Coen Brothers films.
Written and Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Novel By: Charles Portis
So, what did you think of True Grit? If you haven't seen it yet, will you?