From “Fabulous Baker Boy” to lovable lush Jeff Bridges (left) brings lots of swagger to U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfeld shoots up the screen as Mattie Ross. (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures)
(2010, Paramount, PG-13, 110 min.)
By William Wiggins
The way I figure it, the Coen brothers owe me one.
I’m a huge fan of Joel and Ethan, who have given me endless hours of enjoyment with great movies from “Blood Simple” to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” But they totally lost me with the dull, depressing “A Simple Man” and lackluster “No Country For Old Men.”
Oh, I know, “No Country …” won Best Picture; but it was a textbook “Emperor’s new clothes” vote and frankly just didn’t click with me. Anyhoo, when I heard they were remaking “True Grit,” I wasn’t skeptical so much as curious.
I’m not a fan of remakes, especially when it comes to classics. Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” was not only a disappointment, it was out-and-out needless, as was Diane English’s badly-dressed update of George Cukor’s classic, “The Women.” Even “Casablanca” was remade as a horrible TV movie and an even worse TV series. Many don’t consider westerns to be “classics,” but I think at least a few have earned the designation. John Ford’s “The Searchers,” is not only one of the best westerns, it’s also one of the best movies ever made, and even Ron Howard’s fairly competent remake, “The Missing,” was missing much of the bravado that made the 1950s John Wayne version great.
I consider “True Grit” a classic, too. In my mind, if you’re gonna mess with John Wayne, you’d better be quick on the draw. Well, pardners, I hope you’ve all got your spurs on, ‘cause it seems the Coens are back in the saddle and ready to ride.
“True Grit,” based on the Charles Portis novel, centers on 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was killed by the “coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).” Mattie enlists the help of aging, crusty and hard-drinking U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon as LeBoeuf) to track the outlaw and give him a first-class hanging.
Wayne, aka The Duke, captured a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Cogburn. Bridges, who took home a statue for his role as a country singer on the comeback trail in “Crazy Heart,” may not win for this movie, he still makes for one rootin’-tootin’ Rooster.
The smartest move Bridges could have made was to walk away from Wayne’s rendering of Cogburn and make the character his own, and that’s exactly what he did. Bridges is too smart and too skilled an actor to simply ape what Wayne did. Instead he delivers his own unique take on Rooster, even down to switching the eye patch from left to right. Like Wayne, Bridges is oddly endearing as the one-eyed, grumpy and drunken Cogburn, the gruff, hard, killer with a heart of gold, not to mention a biting, plain spoken sense of humor.
But the standout here is easily young Hailee Steinfeld. The original told the story from Cogburn’s point of view, but the new version is clearly from Mattie’s. The bright, young Steinfeld not only makes the most of her first feature outing, she owns it. Steinfeld bases her Mattie on Kim Darby, who played the role in the original, but rides off in different emotional directions, especially when she engages Cogburn in conversations and life lessons on the film’s central themes of revenge, justice, trust and eventually relationships.
In many scenes, she carries the movie, not easy to do up against big guns such as Bridges, Damon and Brolin. She’s so good in fact that she might want to start jotting notes for an Academy Award acceptance speech.
As to supporting roles, some critics balk at Damon’s performance, calling him just another head in a herd of cattle, but I disagree. With two very determined and headstrong lead characters, the film needs a balance point, and Damon brings a necessary reserve to his LeBoeuf. He knows this isn’t his film and doesn’t try to lay claim to it.
Personally, I had a lot of fun watching Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper, who flavors his namesake with some real acting pepper, and gives us a rare look at the “sand” it took to run a bunch of outlaws. If anything, the one player who didn’t get enough screen time was Josh Brolin, who could well have framed the best Tom Chaney of the two versions.
The new film downplays certain aspects that were part of the original story. Almost non-existent here is Cogburn’s friendship with Chinaman Chen Lee, and gone entirely is his cat, the General, both sent packin’ in favor of more exposition with Mattie about his failed marriage.
On the other hand, some familiar scenes that fans of the original will look for are reproduced brilliantly.
The “horse trading” sequence between Mattie and Col. Stonehill is wonderful. Dakin Matthews in particular does such a great send-up of Strother Martin’s Stonehill, you’ll swear you’re watching the 1969 version.
And the classic climactic showdown between Cogburn and Pepper is as good now as it was then.
Ned Pepper: “What is your intention?”
Rooster Cogburn: “I aim to kill you in one minute, or see you hanged at Fort Smith. Which will it be?”
Pepper: “I’d call that big talk for a one-eyed fat man!”
Cogburn: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”
A rousing score by Coen film veteran Carter Burwell perfectly matches the authentic period western production design, costuming and dialogue. And through the eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins, another longtime Coens collaborator, the Texas and New Mexico locations look fantastic.
“It also ends differently than the [original] movie did. [The book’s] a lot tougher and more violent, which is part of what’s interesting about it,” Ethan Coen said in a recent interview. And that observation is to the filmmakers’ credit.
Folks, this is the way remakes should be done … judicious in the choice of film and bringing something to it that sets it apart from its predecessor. The Coens have proven themselves straight shooters with their take on “True Grit,” a film that’s true to its subject matter, yet also displays more than enough grit to make it worthy of walking in the tracks of the original’s very big boots.
William Wiggins is a freelance entertainment journalist from Los Angeles. He’s also a big John Wayne fan. “True Grit” is now playing at the Minaret Cinema. Call 760.934.3131 or log on to www.mammothlakesmovies.com for show times.