The Coen brothers’ new film True Grit is for all intent and purposes a remake. It is based on the 1968 classic western novel of the same name by Charles Portis (True Grit, Norwood) the same novel that veteran filmmaker Henry Hathaway (Rawhide, Shootout) used for the blue print of his 1969 film starring John Wayne; also of the same name. While all these similarities are true and despite sources citing that, the Coen’s film is considerably more truthful to the original novel than Hathaway was, many are sidetracked in comparison when truthfully the similarities are of only minor note. Aesthetically the films are quite different, the sort of differences one would expect in the forty-year span between them not to mention the actual locations where the films are shot. While the Coen’s are no Henry Hathaway, the same can be said of the opposite. The characters in the film are the same and the general premise remains essentially unchanged – but let us put that aside for just a minute. Remaking films is not new to this era or any other for that matter. Some filmmakers have even remade their own films (Michael Mann made L.A. Take Down for television in 1989 and then again, revamped with an all-star cast for a theater release in 1995 under the name Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, among others). In addition, who could forget Gus Van Sant’s famous catastrophe Psycho in 1998, a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s film of the same name thirty-eight years prior. Some debate exists as to just which film was the first remake though I tend to agree with those who say the 1921 film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse remade in 1962 is the first “official” remake. All that to say films are made, sometimes remade for better or for worse, and when the stars and other celestial objects are in alignment the result is a movie that very soundly stands tall and deservedly so. True Grit (2010) is such a film.
Roger Ebert describes the original John Wayne True Grit as, “This is the sort of film you call a movie, instead of the kind of movie you call a film.” I suppose I understand his meaning but I cannot say I agree nor believe it applies in reference to the differences and similarities of the original True Grit and the new True Grit. I see his point, many films these days are indeed movies and vice versa but differentiating on the basis of grandeur and spectacle would seem to blur the fact that many, many people are not always looking for a film, rather a movie that is no more than a two-hour escape from the circle of their daily lives. Films are, I agree, experiences. They are often joyous and emotionally rewarding spectacles immediately perched up high with accolades of “instant classic” or “best picture of the year or even of the decade”. Avatar and Hurt Locker come to mind but let us be honest, there was much more politics involved with those productions than their respective roles as films and movies. I guess when you have been around as long as Mr. Ebert has, not to mention the innumerable films he has seen, the various television shows and books, and of course his pithy pontificating of all things movie, or not, with his Twitter account, he if anyone should know the difference. However, he most likely prefers the first versions of nearly all films he has seen before, for the first time. I cannot imagine he will ever let go of his most cherished silent films or black and white masterpieces for anything contemporary. I would guess, being as I am not a Roger Ebert historian by any stretch of the imagination, his rancor over movie remakes is about as acrid as his dispassion for sequels. In this case, I would beg to differ, strongly suggesting those visiting the theater (a great number of whom were not even born when the original film was made, much less have any interest in rehashing old westerns on TMC) approach the film openly. You’ll have plenty of time to think about the film after the experience because films and movies are meant to be a cinematic experience whether they fail or succeed and whether or not you liked or disliked them.
If you’re like me you went to the new True Grit because it was a Coen brother’s film or perhaps because of Jeff Bridges, fresh from the circuit run after award-winning success with Crazy Heart. Maybe you went to the theater because the last good western you saw was Unforgiven and that was almost twenty years ago – though personally I would consider Tommy Lee Jones 2005 drama The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada a contemporary western, but I note the differences. You might have also caught the trailer for the film that first appeared months prior and were excited by the possibilities present in a Coen brother’s production. Their films embody a sense of eccentricity and grandeur, the feeling of epic storytelling that is very often contained in remarkably specific, if not at times down right odd characters caught up in the smallest and most remote places one can imagine – case in point their award-winning film Fargo. Regardless your reason for watching the film, if you haven’t quite found one of their films to your liking, and I find that hard to believe, their embrace of the western is so fluid and confident as to summon many films in the genre and stand toe to toe with most of them.
It goes without saying that the Coen brothers are indubitable masters of cinema, superb storytellers who not only embrace but revel in the realm of character-centric stories that are often just off axis, poised if you will between people, places, and things we know and those we only read about or see on television. Both Coen brothers are listed as writer, producer, and director on imdb.com and many of their actors, new or favorites like Jeff Bridges and John Turturro, comment on how the two work as one, starting and ending the same sentences, joined as it were in their collective, cohesive brand of filmmaking. From Raising Arizona (1987) to Fargo (1996) to No Country For Old Men (2007), we have come to expect a certain aesthetic from the brothers, a certain way of turning things in obvious, sometimes subtle ways that affect us long after we’ve left the theater, long after the credits have faded and maybe even days have gone by. While True Grit is a bit of a departure from their quirkiness, a film perhaps as Roger Ebert writes “unlike their other films except in quality” it is refreshing this time that they cherish traditional, tried and true cinematic storytelling. True Grit is a rather poignant homage to every film they have made as well as those of the genre that serve as their inspiration. True Grit is a testament to times before, to an era in American history where character was shaped by action and given voice by a code of behavior that gave some the power to kill and lead others to prevent that from happening. If True Grit is anything it is a film gathered like so many fragments, like stories from history books and even from other films with characters not meant to be copied as much as celebrated.
Jeff Bridges may sport the familiar eye patch and measured swagger, he might drink too much and carry on with a tongue thick with whiskey and trail dust, but he brings his own to the character of Ruben J. “Rooster” Cogburn that is every bit as memorable and rewarding as that of John Wayne. One must remember that for every screen icon fading into the dusty shelves of movie archives everywhere there are new actors following nearby, poised to assume their own rightful place in the annals of history and remembering. The role of Rooster Cogburn would not survive the casting of a younger man nor a lesser actor – the idea of these potent traits, the gimmickry apparent, is a simple outline, perhaps a sketch even for the man behind the eye patch is the actor that gives him breath and belabored voice. Bridges fills the screen even larger than we might expect, such that it is impossible to dispel his presence as not a copy of some former character but his very own, an endearing quality found in nearly every role he has ever brought to life.
Perhaps even more rewarding is Hailee Steinfeld in the role of the confident, fast talking and persuasive 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross who sets out to find the man who killed her father. Steinfeld, 14, shines in the role that made a star of veteran television actress Kim Darby who played the part in Hathaway’s film when she was 21. She is beguiling both in character and as a young star who reminds one of the seminal performances by Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s The Professional, she was 13 at the time, and Anna Paquin in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) who was 11 at the time. It is sheer joy to watch Steinfeld play opposite Bridges and Matt Damon, who in his own right is as comfortable and charismatic in the role of a prudish if not arrogant Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf – pronounced ‘La-beef’. Matt Damon proves once again that his talent for filling the big screen is equally potent whether he is a youthful combat solider in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) or an earnest law student and reformed poker player in John Dahl’s Rounders (1998). Damon is perhaps most recognized in his role as a super assassin with amnesia in the “Bourne” movie franchise as well as part of the ensemble of the popular comedy-drama “Ocean’s” movie franchise.
By all definition, True Grit (2010) is entertaining as well as rewarding and perhaps the most traditional film in the repertoire of the Coen’s. The characters are to the point and the dialog sharp, engaging, and poetic. It is easy to see their progression from No Country For Old Men (2007), a sort of modern-day western about good guys and bad guys and justice. True Grit affords the brothers a chance to explore the gradation of character in more readily available personages, people you might know or in the least relate to without losing specificity and substance. If this film is a demarcation for the Coen brothers, a decisive interest in characters not so unlike us, it will prove to broaden their already significant and rightful presence among the best filmmakers of the past quarter century.