Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"True Grit"

True Grit - Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Barry Pepper, and Josh Brolin - Rated PG-13

The Coens made a neo-western with No Country, now they've made a plain old western. I'm glad they did.

Remakes seem to be almost universally hated in the film community these days but there are some (including me) that don’t get up in arms about every single remake. Why is it so terrible that filmmakers want to give their own spin on a story? Worst-case scenario: it sucks; you ignore it, and then watch the original again. Case in point, True Grit, the latest remake from the Coen Brothers, will probably not replace the John Wayne original in most viewers’ hearts, but it doesn’t hurt to see a new take on the Charles Portis novel, especially when it’s made by the Coens.

The Coens, no strangers to the remake game after 2004’s The Ladykillers, have said that their new version of the story is a new adaptation of the novel rather than of the screenplay and that holds true. This version is definitely darker and more violent than the original. It’s not just about darkness and violence, though. The novel had a bittersweet quality to it and more of a focus on the young heroine, Mattie Ross; whereas the 1969 film focused a bit more on the grizzled antihero, Rooster Cogburn. Enough about the original, though, True Grit is its own film.

True Grit takes place in Arkansas in the latter half of the 1800s. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) takes it upon herself to track down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled into Indian territory, which is a haven for outlaws. She enlists the help of a hardened, drunken U.S. Marshal, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and receives unwanted aid in the form of a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).

At its heart, True Grit is a film about determination and retribution, but it is also a film about the friendship, or lack thereof, between Cogburn, Mattie, and LaBoeuf. There lies the true action of this film. LaBoeuf and Cogburn trade barbs while Mattie decides which man is more admirable. At certain points, it seemed like the two men were more worried about maintaining their dignity in front of Mattie than actually finding Chaney.

Mattie is the focus of the two male leads of the film and she is the rightful focus of the film itself. The rough Old West lawman has been done to death, but the determined fourteen-year-old girl of the Old West is untouched material. Thankfully, the film doesn’t get stuck on the ridiculousness of a young girl hunting a fugitive (although the acknowledgment of the fact does lead to a good laugh or two). Instead, the focus is on her character. Mattie is a stubborn girl who argues for what she thinks is right no matter what. And Steinfeld completely inhabits the character. From her first moments, her steely gaze convinces you that not only can she handle the character of Mattie Ross, but she can even outshine the likes of Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. She handles the Coens’ rapid-fire witty dialogue with complete sincerity and ease. Steinfeld is easily the best part of the film and deserves some recognition this awards season. (For the record, she did win the IFJA’s Supporting Actress award.)

Steinfeld is more impressive than her co-stars, but that doesn’t mean their performances are weak. Bridges does a fine job and gives a very amusing turn as Cogburn. He basically plays it as if Bad Blake from last year’s Crazy Heart was a lawman and there is nothing wrong with that. No one is going to forget about John Wayne or anything, but Bridges does a great job. Damon is just as entertaining as the egotistic LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper (who is nearly unrecognizable here) also turn in good performances, Pepper more so than Brolin.

Humor might seem like an odd word in relation to what’s supposed to be a dark western, but this is a Coen Brothers western. The dialogue of any Coen Brothers film is a star in itself and that applies to True Grit. The bickering between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, the bartering of Mattie, the rambling of a strange bear hunter/dentist, etc. is all great and makes what could be boring scenes become funny scenes.

This isn’t a complete comedy, though; True Grit does contain some scenes of sudden and brutal violence (don’t worry about that PG-13 rating, this movie has blood). It is all very effective, but more importantly, it looks beautiful at times. Director of photography Roger Deakins has filmed yet another beautiful film. Teamed up with the Coens, Deakins creates slow, meandering tracking shots, interesting wide shots of great locations, and low-lit scenes of intensity. Add an effective, old school score by Carter Burwell (with great touches that are reminiscent of Miller’s Crossing) and True Grit is a very aesthetically pleasing film.

True Grit may not be the action packed western some may hope for, but if you let the film sink in you realize how effective it really is. Most effective, though, is the Coens’ slavish devotion to the source material. Much like No Country for Old Men, the Coens never stray very far from the novel the film is based on. The ending of the film truly benefits from this. Others may find the film’s finale a bit abrupt or anti-climactic, but it is in keeping with the realistic tone of the rest of the film.

The film is not without its faults, though. The devotion to the source material may go too far at times; most notably with the mentally challenged outlaw who makes animal sounds. A reader will recognize that character, but a viewer may be left confused. Aside from that, there is really nothing wrong with True Grit. If anything, though, a Coen fan may be a bit disappointed by how straightforward the film is. The discussions created by last year’s A Serious Man (my #1 film of 2009) are nonexistent here. You can’t fault a film for abandoning the deep end, but it may keep this film off of top ten lists and the like.

Top ten lists and awards probably don’t mean much to the Coens. They are more likely worried about making an enjoyable and beautiful film and they certainly have accomplished that with True Grit. If you want John Wayne and an ending that comes complete with a bow on top, then by all means, watch the classic 1969 film. If you’re looking for something fun, well-acted, dark, and beautiful, then watch this new version. Remember, it’s not a really a remake, it’s just the Coens’ own vision of a novel and it’s a vision worth seeing.

Random Thoughts

Barry Pepper plays Ned Pepper. I just thought that was amusing. Not since Kevin Dunn acted in a film with a character named Kevin Dunn (Snake Eyes) has such a coincidence occurred. Aside from that, I can’t stress enough how vastly different Pepper looks in this film. His performance will make you wish he had been the main antagonist throughout, although Chaney isn’t truly an antagonist, either, to be honest.

I dug Cogburn’s intro via an outhouse, just a really great way to introduce the character.

I can’t find any confirmation of this, but I am 99% sure that the voice of Lawyer Daggett is none other than J. K. Simmons. It was a nice touch adding his voice, assuming I am correct, that is.

The nearly word for word adaptation of the court scene from the novel was great. It was as if the Coens handed the actors a copy of the novel rather than a script, which is a possibility.

1 comment:

  1. I too recognized the voice of J.K. Simmons as that of Lawyer Daggett. Shame he did not get credited for it, but then... we know. He's one of the most underrated actors I know of and always enjoy watching - versatile and always genuine, believable. - WWIII