Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010)
Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf ), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Paul Rae (Emmett Quincy), Dakin Matthews (Col. Stonehill),  Jarlath Conroy (Undertaker),  Domhnall Gleeson (Moon (The Kid)), Elizabeth Marvel (40-Year-Old Mattie), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell), Ed Corbin (Bear Man).

True Grit is the type of remake I would like to see more of. The original 1969 film directed by old school studio hand Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne (in an Oscar winning role) already seemed dated when it was released. Wayne was capable of greatness – in films as varied as Red River (1948), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) among others – but he was also had no real problem coasting on his iconic image. That’s pretty much what he did in True Grit – which in his and Hathaway’s hands was a nostalgic Western with a clear division between good and evil and a simplistic way of looking at the world. In the same year that Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch pretty much put a nail in the coffin of the traditional Western as it had been made since the dawn of movies, Hathaway and Wayne pretty much didn’t take notice, and made one the old way. The result is an okay film – that would probably not be very well remembered today had the Academy decided not to give Wayne his only acting Oscar for the role – a move largely seen as a sympathy vote as Wayne had never won, and had recently been diagnosed with cancer. The Charles Portis novel on which the film was based was not quite as simplistic as the movie Hathaway and Wayne made out of it – Rooster Cogburn was not quite the one dimensional hero Wayne played him as. The ending of the novel was not supposed to be as triumphant as the 1969 film showed it as. If nothing else, than the Coens 2010 remake shows that the world of True Grit is not as black and white as we always assumed it was.

The story is about Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) – a 13 year old girl whose father has been gunned down by the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – who has since teamed up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang, and lit out for the Indian territory. The Sheriff doesn’t care – he isn’t his problem anymore as he’s out of town. And without an incentive, the U.S. Marshalls won’t spend much effort tracking him down either. So Mattie asks the Sheriff who the best Marshall they have is – and is told that Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is certainly the meanest. We are introduced to Rooster in a courtroom scene, where he’s being cross examined by a defense lawyer who dwells on how many men Rooster has killed in carrying out his duties. It’s so many Rooster isn’t quite sure of the number. That’s enough for Mattie – who hires Rooster to track down Tom Chaney for her – on the condition that she is coming along with him when she does. They are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who doesn’t much care for Rooster. The feeling is mutual.

In many ways, True Grit is the most straight forward of the Coen brothers films. They have often worked in genre films, but take those classic genres and twist them to make a film that is unmistakably their own. They don’t really do that with True Grit – which to a certain extent is as much as a throwback to an earlier time as the original True Grit was. This film would sit more comfortably alongside the Westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s – when the genre was becoming darker than it previously had been, and more cynical.

As played by Jeff Bridges, Rooster Cogburn is not a straight ahead hero, as John Wayne’s version was. He seems older, is certainly an alcoholic, and has the appearance of a pile of old, smelly clothes. He is, as the defense attorney accuses him of being, a cold blooded killer – but not one without a certain degree of charm and humor – at least to the audience. As Mattie Ross, Hailee Steinfeld (in her debut performance) is even better than Bridges – the movie is hers, and she carries it effortlessly – from bargaining with a crooked horse dealer, to her single minded pursuit of Tom Chaney, her Mattie Ross is tougher than Kim Darby’s was in the original – more capable of taking care of herself, and less willing to take a backseat to the men. Matt Damon, who unlike his two co-stars wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (although he should have been) is their equal as LaBeouf – a man whose tough guy act really is more of an act than anything else – one that he uses to disguise his own insecurities. When he finally arrives in the movie, Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney is more pathetic than anything else – a sad loser, unwanted by everyone. He is a “bad guy” to be sure, but not that hateful of one.

To watch the two different versions of True Grit is to see how completely different two films that tells the same plot, have the same characters, and has much of the same dialogue – both screenplays borrow heavily from Portis’ novel in terms of dialogue. But the original film was a straight ahead, heroic Western – that ends in triumph when Cogburn finally admits that Mattie Ross really does has “true grit”. In The Coen brothers world, this same conclusion is played on a note of sadness – a feeling that Mattie, not to mention Rooster, have essentially wasted their lives. When we see Mattie in the closing scenes of this movie as a 40 year old woman, she doesn’t seem to have changed at all since she was 13 – she is still stubborn, still alone, still has the same viewpoint on the world around her. She will, most likely, die alone, as we learn that Rooster eventually did. As for LaBeouf, we don’t learn what happened to him – and I take that as perhaps the only hopeful note in the films closing scenes. He always did have slightly more insight than either Rooster or Mattie – and perhaps he was smart enough to move on with his life.

As I mentioned off the top, this is the type of remake I would like to see more of. I see little point in simply remaking a classic film and simply repeating everything the original film did the first time around. If you’re going to do that, you may as well not do it at all, because the original film already did it. But when you remake a film like True Grit – one I don’t consider to be particularly good in the first place – you can find interesting differences to explore. That’s what the Coen brothers do in True Grit. As a Western, True Grit is exciting, action packed, old school entertainment – with great performances and cinematography. Perhaps the Coens simply made it because they were sticking to the old formula of “one for you, one for them” – and True Grit was the most successful of the brothers film at the box office. Or perhaps they did it because they wanted to make an old fashioned Western – or because they felt Portis’ novel deserved better than it got from Hathaway and Wayne. I really don’t know why the brothers made it – and I really don’t care. Perhaps, as some have said, True Grit is the least personal of the brothers films. Fair enough. It doesn’t quite have the hallmarks we normally associate with the Coen films – unless you include in those hallmarks great performances, fine storytelling and amazing Roger Deakins cinematography, in which True Grit certainly delivers. It may well be the least “Coen-esque” of all of the Coen films – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful film in its own right.

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