Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rebuilding the Old West

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?


  1. I haven't seen the original, but I must confess that I really liked this one. I didn't notice anything artificial about it as you say. What stood out especially for me was Hailee Steinfeld. Such a perfect casting! She owned the screen.

    Usually I'm not a fan of the western genre, but this one really made me start to reconsider my hostility towards it. Maybe it's about time I give it a new go.

    Oh, and I watched it in a theatre. It might have helped. It was that kind of movie, where you want to enjoy the big landscapes properly.

  2. I guess maybe I'm inured to the Western lately. Big landscapes are nice, but this is a film that plays on the characters much more than the area they are in. It's in many ways a small, personal film told in a big place.

    As for the language, I simply found it jarring and unnatural. The people in this film, outdoor people who are comfortable sleeping outside and have far different ideas of formality, would almost certainly use contractions. I guess I buy it for the girl because she is so stiff and formal. I have a harder time seeing it in Cogburn.

  3. A fine review as always, Steve, containing some interesting parallels with my own review of the film. Great minds stink alike.

  4. So des. Interesting that we both paired this with Unforgiven, but I think it's a natural pairing. Both films attempt a more unvarnished, less glorified West. Rooster Cogburn in the original film is gruff but a good man at heart. This Cogburn is a drunken bastard.

    Good call on Josh Brolin, but I don't mind that his villain was little more than a clownish ruffian. I like that difference between his reality and what Mattie thinks he is. He's not a great monster or the most evil man in the world that she believes the killer of her father to be. He's just a dumb thug.

  5. I'm not a huge Cohen fan therefore I quite enjoyed this one since it wasn't so quirky. The only real issue I had was with the ending that felt to anticlimactic and the last run back to civilization I would have liked to seen depicted in a different way.

    Nice comparison with the Unforgiven they go together quite well!

  6. I liked the movie, but the ending left me cold because after an hour and a half spent with one version of Mattie, I just couldn't connect with this suddenly older version played by a new actress. The scene that was supposed to be emotional wasn't for me because I felt no connection to her.

  7. @Joel--the more you say things like you not being a Coen fan, the more I think you and I have the most divergent movie tastes possible.

    @Chip--I see that. It didn't bother me terribly, but the connection there is pretty flimsy.

  8. Steve: A lot of people seem to think that after discussing film with me. I'm truly one of a kind... =)

  9. I can understand not liking the Coens' comedies, because they are very offbeat. Films like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy aren't for everyone. I can't say the same for their dramas, though. Anyone should be able to appreciate something like Blood Simple.

    Maybe you should stick to their serious stuff.

  10. Very true! However, I do think they over worked Blood Simple a little for my taste but its of course a very solid film but I don't praise it to the modern masterpiece many do.

    My favorite film of theirs is by far Fargo. To me its their by far best film so far.

  11. Y'know, maybe Blood Simple is a little overwrought, but it was also their first, and I give them a lot of credit for pulling that film out as a debut.

    I love Fargo, but not nearly as much as I love No Country for Old Men, which is sort of the apotheosis of their style.

  12. @SJHoneywell - I'm a Coen fan, but I would have said the exact opposite to someone who is on the fence with them. I'd tell people to stick to their early comedies and skip the heavier dramas. I know tons of people who have enjoyed Raising Arizona; not so much Blood Simple.

  13. While I agree with you in the main, Joel is something of a special case.

  14. Great review man. I agree that it's lacking a few of the Coen ingredients (I'm a fan as well), though I still prefer it over the original.

  15. Impossible for me to say. It's been far too long since I've seen the original.

  16. Interesting that you and I each believe that our favorites are the films that represent them best. Though everyone might think that way. I'm with Joel as having Fargo as my favorite. NCFOM doesn't have nearly enough humor in it to to be the representative of their style. Black, black comedy and lowlifes, that's their trade.

    I really dug True Grit. I can see where you're coming from with the contractions, as they might usually bother me, but it felt like they were being true and accurate even if they weren't (well, they were being true to the novel but not to history - here's an interesting look at the subject since you got me curious: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2873).

    Anyway, I found it funny as shit. The interplay between the three leads was awesome, and Bridges owned.

    Then I went back and watched the original...what a shock, I didn't take to it nearly as much. The original Mattie was annoying as shit, and Bridges is 100x the actor that Wayne was (at least in TG, though it's considered one of Wayne's best performances). Fun fact: she went on to play Lane's mom in Better Off Dead.

  17. I'm not sure True Grit is the best evidence of Duke Wayne's work. I know it's the film he got an Oscar for, but I think that's sort of like Paul Newman winning for The Color of Money instead of the eight other movies he was nominated for. Wayne's great movies to my mind are Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, The Shootist and most especially The Searchers. If you can find it, They Were Expendable is pretty good, too. It does have its problems, but Wayne isn't one of them.

    Oddly enough, it's the language that I find so attractive in No Country because that to me seems so authentic that I find it difficult to believe the Coens themselves don't speak that way.

    This might shock you--I think I like this version of True Grit better, although it's been years since I saw the original. I'm not completely anti-remake, and waiting 41 years is a long enough grace period.

  18. The 2010 version of True Grit is not a remake. It's an adaptation of a novel that was adapted previously in the 1960s.

    And it's not only acceptable to say the 2010 version is better, it's also pretty obvious.

    1. Fair enough on the adaptation point.

      And yeah, the 2010 version is superior in pretty much every respect.