True Grit (2010)
Normally I’m not an avid fan of remakes. They range from the completely unimaginative and unnecessary shot for shot remake of ‘Psycho’ to the television remake of ‘Battle Star Galactica’ that not only far surpassed the original but set a new bar for the genre. Most remakes fall somewhere in between although the bell curve does have the propensity to slant to the low end of the spectrum. One valid rational for a film maker to take on a remake, especially considering the statistical odds against success is there are stories that are classic; the demand to be retold every generation or so. These stories contain themes and archetypes so universal that each generation can adopt the story, rework it for their sensibilities and offer a fresh take to the public. There is also a similar case in film, and theater, where a director or actors admire the original and want to stretch their personal abilities by taking on a new take on the project. One film that has is firmly on the high end of the curve and will be used in the future as the remake touchstone is the 2010 version of ‘True Grit’. While based on the classic John Wayne epic from 1969, this retelling of the story is fresh, exciting and cries out for its place in cinematic history. The movie may not have won the Oscars but did receive an amazing ten nominations. Part of the reason its creators did not stand at the podium can be attributed to the Academy’s apparent reluctance to honor a remake. Again any stigma usually associated with this term has no justification in this particular instance. His movie goes further than renewing the justification of the remake; it can breathe new vitality into one of the oldest genres in film, the venerable western. That format endures because it provides a crucible to test the mettle of a person in a set of circumstances where the safety and security of civilization and the laws it engenders are lessened or even completely missing. The western can look at reasonable men, and women, coping with the most unreasonable situations possible. Most of us remember the ‘cowboy and Indian’ shoot-em-ups we grew up on but ‘True Grit’ excels beyond anything that format could muster. Both the original film and this incarnation provide a vital stage for a well crafted psychological drama; taut, intriguing and human.
The new version was written and directed by a pair of brothers who are literally reinventing filmmaking one genre at a time; the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. Their incredible list of accomplishments encompass an eclectic cross section of films ranging from ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ to ‘The Big Lebowski ‘and more recently the Academy Award winning ‘No Country for Old Men’ which gave the brothers some golden statures for their mantles. Many have noted that this version of ‘True Grit’ retains a greater fidelity to the novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 release. Not having read the novel I can’t personally speak to that but I can say that the performance by Jeff Bridges is entirely different than the one presented by the late, great John Wayne. This was a judicial course for Bridges to take since Wayne does hold the title of the epitome of the American western star. For him the role of Rooster Cogburn was to ensure his legacy would note he really could act. Bridges already has established his acting credentials and is now successfully transitioning from the devilish young man to older, grizzly roles. He has conquered this new stage of his career with amazing style and talent. He also had the advantage here of prior work experience with the Brothers Cohen. Forget what you thought you knew about westerns. The screenplay here is astonishingly textured; a tapestry where each thread adds to the whole yet retains its own distinctive identity. This is a major factor in the expression of the collective Cohen genius. They have mastered the art of synergy making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. I first noticed this element of their work with their earlier films; ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ and ‘Fargo’. The underlying format of the film is the retrospective narrative given by the adult version Mattie Ross (child: Hailee Steinfeld/ adult voiced by Elizabeth Marvel). This is an ideal way to immediately pull in the audience by having us become concerned with the plight of a young girl. This also distances the movie from any expectation of the old school all action westerns. The greatest strength of this film is its emotional heart; it is not just a great western; it is a truly great film in every way possible.
Mattie recently became orphaned when her father was murdered by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After killing the man he absconded with all he had, two gold pieces and his horse. Mattie craves justice, bordering on an all consuming drive for revenge. The sheriff informs her she needs a U.S. Marshal giving the girl a few names. She decides on Rooster since he was described as having ‘’true grit’. They are not the only ones hunting the nefarious Chaney. Hot on the trail of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). After some discussion the three set out together to apprehend the felon. This sets up a situation where two diametrically opposite men pursue a goal that on the surface is the same. Caught in the middle is a girl blinded by hatred and driven by revenge. The law men should be there to see the letter of the law is upheld but in some ways Rooster seems better equip to help Mattie deal with her turbulent emotions. Throughout the film there is the often antagonistic interaction between the difference with seeking justice and serving the law. Out in the untamed wilderness the laws of civilized man most often yield to the visceral demands of gut instinct.
For a young actress like Hailee Steinfeld you could not dream for a better film to make the audience and industry sit up and take notice. Not only did this place her in a major motion picture crafted by two of the best regarded filmmakers alive but it gave her an opportunity to share the screen with some of the most versatile actors in her profession. This amounts to her first feature film and to receive an Oscar nomination for her portrayal he career promises to be spectacular.