Film: True Grit
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
It always strikes me as strange when directors I like do remakes, because the remake often strikes me as the lowest form of movie making. Oh, I know that’s not really true, but it does feel that way. It’s how I reacted when Scorsese remade Infernal Affairs as The Departed. So when the Coens remade True Grit, I was sort of nonplussed. And I was even more of that opinion when I remembered that this was the second time this had happened; the Coens remade The Ladykillers a few years ago.
Anyway, True Grit is a story of revenge. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) sees her father killed and wishes the man brought to justice. Specifically, she wants to see the man hang. To see this come to pass, she hires Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a marshal who seems to be the exact opposite of young Mattie in every respect. Mattie has a head for business and numbers, brooks no backtalk, and always attempts to deal from a position of strength. She isn’t shy about dropping the name of the family lawyer at every opportunity if she thinks it will get her what she wants, and she isn’t shy about making moral judgments on others. Cogburn, on the other hand, is a hard-drinking, vicious lawman who is really a lawman only in name. In truth, he’s little more than a talented gunslinger who sometimes shoots malefactors.
Cogburn attempts to go on the hunt without Mattie, but she has none of it. They are joined on the trail by LaBouef (Matt Damon) a proud Texas Ranger who is coincidentally searching for the same man, albeit under a different name. It seems that the man who shot Mattie’s pappy is a wanted man in Texas because he also managed to shoot and kill a senator. The trio rides together and splits up multiple times over the course of the movie, generally with LaBouef (pronounced as “lu-BEEF” throughout; my friends of the same last name in spelling say it differently) riding one way and Mattie and Cogburn riding another.
Finally, there is the confrontation, which is a big one. Mattie finally catches up with Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who is now riding with notorious outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who was possibly cast for the awesome reason that his last name is the same as that of the character), who also happens to be wanted. This means a bigger bounty for Cogburn, who seems to want little more than just enough money for his next meal. He doesn’t worry about whiskey—as a marshal, he just confiscates what he wants to drink.
And really, that’s it. True Grit is a pretty straightforward tale of a young girl looking for revenge for her father, and finding it in some unexpected places. The title, I think, refers not to Cogburn, although he certainly proves his mettle in the course of the film. Similarly, it could but does not refer to LaBouef. Mattie is the one with real grit here, and she demonstrates this at every possible turn.
For me, one of the real joys of the Coen brothers is the dialogue. No Country for Old Men is my personal favorite of their films, and one of the main reasons I like it so much is because the dialogue is so precisely and carefully written. Here, there are a number of times that the writing is more of a distraction than it is an aid in telling the story. The characters generally speak without contractions, making everything they say sound artificial and forced. It would be easy to ignore if it popped up here and there, but it’s through almost the entire movie. In that respect, this film reminded by quite a bit of the same issue I had with Guys and Dolls. The forced artificiality bothers me because it seems so unnecessary.
I like this film pretty well, but I do have to question what all the fuss was about, and this is coming from the perspective of someone who really likes the Coens. I at least like all of their films that I’ve seen, and some I genuinely love. This one, though, while good and enjoyable, doesn’t seem to be a film that rises to the level of required viewing. Well filmed, yes. Well acted, yes. Necessary? I’m not so sure.
It would, however, make a dandy double feature with Unforgiven.
Why to watch True Grit: A classic reborn modern.
Why not to watch: It’s reborn, but really, so what?