True Grit (2010)

22 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“True Grit” is not so much the remake of the 1969 Western of the same name that won John Wayne his Oscar, but more of a new adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis. But to be fair, practically everyone else is going to label it as a “remake” of the 1969 version. And it was a dang good Western too—adventurous, exciting, and fun. Now we have this new version created by the Coen Brothers—Joel and Ethan Coen of masterpieces such as “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.” If anyone, they’re two of the first few people I would be interested in seeing pull this off. The result is more compelling than you might think.

This update is not, by any means, a joyful Western. It’s a dirty, terrifying, disturbing adventure-thriller that happens to take place in the Old West. In other words, it’s one of the best Westerns to come around in a long time. It’s kind of a refreshing change of pace. And besides, when you remake a movie, it’s almost pointless unless artistry is thrown in.

The story is the same as in the original film. 14-year-old Mattie Ross’ father has been killed by a drunken cowardly snake named Tom Chaney. So she goes into the city to hire US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a fat, dirty, constantly drunk, vile man, to lead a manhunt into the Indian Territory to find him. Accompanying Mattie and Cogburn is only one Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (sounds like “La Beef”). The journey is essentially the same as in the original—the unlikely trio of heroes ride along the Indian Territory on their horses and come across some grim situations involving outlaws until they finally come across Tom Chaney, his leader Ned Pepper, and their gang.

There are new touches added this time around, with some disturbing imagery. For example, there’s a man hung high from a tree and Mattie has to cut him down for Cogburn to see if he knew who he was. Then there’s a man clothed in a bear-skin who takes the body’s teeth and asks if there’s an offer for the “rest of him.” So strange, so disturbing…so brilliant. It adds to the grimness that Mattie has to learn to conquer.

Here’s another new touch added to the new version—Mattie’s attitude towards this whole adventure. In the original, Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby (much older than her character—she was about 20 while her character was 14), was a realistic figure—showing that there is fear to overcome while knowing that she’s out of her limit on this manhunt. In this remake, Mattie, solidly played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, is much more bitter and far more determined to hunt down the man who killed her father. She’s so determined to the point where she just doesn’t care about what may lie ahead for her on this journey. All she has is vengeance on her mind. Don’t get me wrong—Mattie in the original had determination for justice too. But this Mattie is determined to a more extreme level.

John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in the original film, but let’s face it—not many people called him Rooster Cogburn throughout the movie; we called him John Wayne, because there’s no one else he can play (not that that means he isn’t great at it). In this remake, he’s played by Jeff Bridges—kind of an odd choice for the great actor, although he has disappeared into his roles to the point where we forget that it is Jeff Bridges playing them (like the Coen Brothers’ other production, “The Big Lebowski”). But the truth of the matter is that Jeff Bridges is absolutely perfect as Rooster Cogburn. He looks right and more importantly, he feels right. This is a role that he gets completely lost in. Even his speech, though somewhat indistinct at times, seems legit. It’s all the more effective when you realize that you would rather spend more time with John Wayne’s welcome presence than Jeff Bridges’ intimidating swagger. What makes him interesting is we don’t know what makes him tick. We don’t know what puts him on edge, but we don’t want to be around when he is.

La Boeuf was played with grinning delight by Glen Campbell in the original film. This time, he’s played by Matt Damon. And if you think Matt Damon doesn’t belong in this movie, here’s a news flash—La Boeuf doesn’t belong in this journey. He’s like a hero from another movie that found himself out of his element, playing sidekick in this movie. And the truth is Matt Damon does do a credible job at playing the cowboy who’s in way over his head.

The villains are about the same, but still well-acted. Josh Brolin is the dumb, pathetic Tom Chaney and Barry Pepper is the tough, thinking Ned Pepper (wait, what?) and they’re well-suited for their roles.

So the mood and character traits are darker this time around. But it’s not just that. The cinematography is dark and moody as well. Remember how in the original film, we caught those beautiful landscapes? Well here, the landscapes are about as empty and unpromising as an apocalyptic wasteland. This is a darker, more complex re-imagining of a Western that seemed fun. Even the ending is different and more sour. There’s no happy ending with John Wayne riding off on his horse into the sunset. Heck, there’s barely even a happy ending. It just…ends. And strangely, that’s so effective. It teaches that a life fueled by vengeance is not the best way to live.

“True Grit” has the same quality of a Coen Brothers’ movie, so it came as no surprise that they made it. The dialogue is quirky, the side characters steal the show (particularly a horse trader played by Dakin Matthews and a landlady played by Candyce Hinkle), and there are some odd little touches added to the shots—that’s how you know this is a Coen Brothers’ movie. And it’s dark, mysterious, and compelling, like their best thrillers. And if you think you’re ready to see Jeff Bridges play a cowboy, don’t say you weren’t warned, partner.

NOTE: There’s a subtle music score that seems to follow the melody of the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I noticed it midway through the movie and was wondering if there’d be a lyrical rendition for it later. And if there’s one thing I hate about this movie, it’s whoever they chose to sing that song in the end credits!

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