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Much chatter accompanies the release of the Coen brothers’ latest opus, a remake of the 1969 Western True Grit, first filmed by director Henry Hathaway and starring, in his only Oscar turn, John Wayne.  For many, the very idea of treading over the Duke’s bones is heresy; even when the consideration is a film as problematic as True Grit, which was based on a novel by Charles Portis.  The truth is that the earlier film is only notable for Wayne’s outstanding performance and the dust-blown beauty of Hathaway’s cinemascope-perfect vistas.  The rest of the film suffers from some truly unfortunate casting, with Glen Campbell not making a particularly sterling transition from popular singer to actor, and Kim Darby in an appallingly poor turn, terrifically out of depth and utterly irritating as the film’s supposed protagonist.  Yeah, the Duke’s a big hurdle to jump over, but if there was ever anyone game, why not the Coens?

After a night of violence, we follow as young Mattie Ross, the self-appointed head of her household comes to town to take care of the effects and claims left behind by her father, recently shot to death by a petty criminal.  The strong-willed teen might be far from the age of majority, but she’s got her mind firmly set on two things; making the best settlement for her family and avenging her old man’s death.  Mattie’s sharp, quicksilver financial dealings leave even the wiliest traders quaking in their boots and she is wise enough to choose a gunslinger to help take care of the whole vengeance business.  Her choice to track the killer is the inebriated, old, out of shape U.S. Marshal Reuben Cogburn; a man who can’t accurately recall how many men he’s killed since bearing the federal star, but seems to have what Mattie considers “true grit”.  Cogburn considers Mattie’s offer of employment with all the gravity of one approached by a fresh-faced, small-town teenage girl, but in the end can’t argue with the money Mattie has in hand.  Any thought to handling things without Mattie are quickly turned aside as Cogburn finds his new boss is as tenacious as she is shrewd.  Even a near-drowning and subsequent spanking from a Texas Ranger who’s also after the same prey won’t put the determined young lady in her pappy’s oversized hat off her goal of delivering the killing blow to her father’s murderer.  The wilds of the lawless West, the uncharted Indian country and the desperadoes the small righteous group will face might be more than their match.

John Wayne fans needn’t have worried; after the heart-pounding thrills and psychological brutality of films like Blood Simple {1984}, Miller’s Crossing {1990} and No Country for Old Men {2007} the Coens handle True Grit with kid gloves.  They vastly improve those poorer parts of the original film, sticking closer to Portis’ source material and walking on eggshells around Mr. Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, wisely allowing the imminently likeable Jeff Bridges to wear a Duke suit for a while.  They also give us a real star-is-born moment in their discovery of young Hailee Steinfeld, who could only be an improvement over the preceding Mattie Ross, Kim Darby.  Steinfeld’s Mattie is razor-sharp, tough and steady as an oak, handling situations no child then or now should ever experience with preternatural aplomb.  Steinfeld does this without making her character seem artificially hyper-adult.  Mattie’s staunch morals and upbringing allow her to see her journey simply as what needs doing; she’s a creature of sensibility and the hard knocks of the age.  Steinfeld never loses Mattie’s innocence even in a creepy scene with the Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, sitting in her hotel room watching her sleep then confessing his plan to kiss her while she was unconscious.  Ew.  This is the same La Boeuf who will later turn the young woman over his knee when he judges her fancy too outrageous and decides she is in the way of his getting his man.  Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger is a peacock in fringed buckskin and noisy spurs; a great combination of hubris and buffoonery and his offhand sparring with both Cogburn and Mattie provide a lot of the fun of the film.  So what about Rooster Cogburn, then?  Strangely enough, I was reminded less of John Wayne watching Bridges’ marshal than Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou {1965}.  This resemblance was confirmed for me during the scene where the trio are making their way across another plain and a soused Cogburn sings and teeters precariously on (and off) his horse, then takes up an unsuccessful shooting challenge against La Boeuf.  The other character that came to mind was Bridges’ own Oscar-winning creation, Bad Blake from 2009’s Crazy Heart.  So, take Kid Shelleen and sprinkle liberally with Bad Blake and there’s your new Rooster Cogburn.  The Coen’s focus is squarely on Mattie and as seen through her eyes, Cogburn is at points brave, blustering and sad, and at the end, her hero.

As is the way with any good Western, True Grit travels at its own pace, following its subjects through the untamed wilds and canyons once their pursuit begins, allowing their actions to demonstrate character development.  True Grit’s issue is in having as gripping a tale to tell for the time we spend out in those wilds.  Once the quarry has been met, the proceedings become a bit anticlimactic, which is probably exactly how it would appear to Mattie.  Except for a nearly shot-for-shot copy from the 1969 original of Cogburn’s big shootout with the bad guys, reins in teeth, both barrels blazing, rarely do the film’s thrills lift the audience out of first gear.  There’s a strange disconnect to the pacing of the film which breaks up the momentum.  The characters all converse in that very precise, contraction-free speech of the age, which brought to mind another telling of the Old West.  True Grit did less to fascinate me as a great venture of its own than as a very special (cuss-free) episode of Deadwood.  The Coens being past the generation where good guys always wore white hats and bad guys wore black inject the brutality of the world at the time into their film as the HBO series did so ably.  Where Deadwood crackled with electricity through every scene and subplot, True Grit isn’t quite as lively. The excellent cast is rounded out by Josh Brolin as the lunkheaded object of Mattie and La Boeuf’s travails and Barry Pepper as another outlaw who would like nothing more than for Cogburn’s blindness to affect his other eye, allowing him to escape.  True Grit’s core lies in its screenplay and smart dialog.  Unfortunately, outside of snippets of Cogburn’s regaling Mattie with stories of his lifetime loves and losses, once the action moves onto horseback, we lose a lot of the snappy, homespun patter.  The visuals are notable in that they aren’t particularly notable; the Coens opt for plains that are dreary and unwelcoming as opposed to the sun bleached mountains and picturesque crags of Hathaway’s work.  There are a few wonderful moments that remind us this is a Coen brothers’ film, like the spectral appearance of a bear-clad medicine man out of the mists amongst other quirky supporting roles and a disagreement between a pair of villains who don’t quite fit hand-in-glove.

Compared to the flaws of the 1969 film, this remake is definitely an improvement, but compared to the standard of what one has come to expect from the Coen brothers, there’s not a whole lot here.  True Grit is certainly worth watching for its excellent cast, particularly Hailee Steinfeld, but one can’t escape that there really should’ve been much more, or perhaps nothing at all.

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Dec 22nd, 2010

 

 

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Paramount Pictures)

 

 

 

 

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