There was a time when Joel and Ethan Coen, so rightfully highly regarded for their original screenplays and films, found their impeccable track record muddied by a brief rash of remakes and story adaptations. While this one-two punch of "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers" did them no favors roughly a decade ago, the triumph of their 2006 Cormac McCarthy adaptation and Oscar winner "No Country for Old Men" seemed to clarify that the primary fault of the former films may've been that they aren't Westerns. (Yes, I'm one of those who consider "No Country..." a Western, if only perhaps a fringe one. Let's go with "neo-western/noir".) Taking any such lesson as that to heart, the Coen brothers are back, this time with an even higher-profile Western adaptation, "True Grit".
Following "No Country", the brothers have managed to parlay their 2006 momentum into what can certainly be viewed as an unprecedented (for them) one-film-per-year hot streak. While the subsequent films, "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man" do attract their share of detractors; their artistry and originality cannot be overlooked. But now, perhaps right on cue, the Coen brothers have seen fit to make a right turn into the realm of the familiar, if not exactly the comfortable. Although an adaptation of a novel that has already been filmed once, this latest version of "True Grit" is distinctly their own, and gloriously so. With appropriate doses of humor and quirk interspersed courtesy of Jeff Bridges' raspy portrayal of an alcoholic lawman, and through the handling of "Grit" dialogue that predates this version, "True Grit" 2010 is a uniquely beautiful and poignant picture.
It's the story of an adolescent girl out to bring the man who killed her father to justice. (The killer, Tom Chaney, is played by Josh Brolin.) Early in her quest, young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) states that she's looking for a man with "true grit". Someone of proper authority whom she can trust unquestionably to get the job done, no matter where it takes him, without compromise. Oh, and she's tagging along. Enter Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn, an infamous and controversial U.S. Marshal known as much for his penchant for violence as his wretched personal hygiene. (And keep in mind, this being the Old West, we can safely assume the common standards of personal hygiene were not nearly what they are today.)
Jeff Bridges redefines "grizzled" as Rooster Cogburn, a role once immortalized by John Wayne in the 1969 film of the same name. As Cogburn, Bridges growls, limps and spits his way through the film. His decaying take on the character is enough to arouse doubt that Mattie has in fact chosen her man wisely. Sharing that doubt is boisterous Texas Ranger La Boeuf, a role once played by singer Glen Campbell in '69, but now embodied by Matt Damon. Damon as La Boeuf is refreshingly self-effacing, always just on this side of pompous. When La Boeuf joins up as the third wheel on the expedition, sparks fly between he and Cogburn for the duration. One particularly great interlude is an impromptu sharp-shooting contest.
Explaining what makes "True Grit" beautiful is easier than describing what makes it poignant. Roger Deakins cinematography, capturing the rugged natural terrain of the journey, synthesizes with Carter Burwell's moving score (both men Coen veterans) to bring a depth of emotional reality to the proceedings. Few films as of late evoke a time and place as well as this one. Unlike the classic westerns of John Ford, where landscape took on a character all its own, this experience all about terrain. The rustic beauty of it all, when taken in the context of a little girl's hunt for her father's killer, stirs a dichotomy appropriate to the source material. The best work of Joel and Ethan Coen succeed ultimately at a guttural, filmic level that transcends words. Here, they have elevated an already superb story to that level.
If you are a fan of the 1969 Henry Hathaway version of "True Grit", know that there are many similarities, but that they are two distinctly different experiences. Both are worthwhile (the 2010 version is a rare example of a welcome remake of a good film - although it should be pointed out that the Coens' intention, it is said, was to adapt the Charles Portis novel, sidestepping the Hathaway film), but the edge goes to the new version. John Wayne will always be the more immortal cinematic version of Rooster Cogburn, (even if Bridges is the more authentic,) but truth be told, the hokey music of the original (even by 1969 standards) could be an understandable deal breaker for modern viewers. Tonally, films strike proper chords, it's just the new one that hits that target more often, and it does so with the touch of timeless auteurism. Welcome to the old west, Joel and Ethan.
- Jim Tudor
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