True Grit

a film by Joel & Ethan Coen

Following more to the letter of the original novel than to the 1969 film that finally won John Wayne his one and only Oscar (in this I must trust others, having never read the book myself) the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit is a darker (though never so dark as to lose its needless PG-13 rating), moodier, and dare I say, grittier version than the aforementioned Oscar-winning vehicle for the Duke. Taking more than a cue from, and making more than a nod toward Anthony Mann and the auteur's psychological westerns, the Coen's have hammered together their first true exercise in the genre (one could, and probably should, make a case for the brothers' No Country For Old Men as the brothers' first western) and have come out the other end, much like the two main protagonists of the film, both weary and tired, but also with a film well worth fighting for.

Starring the reigning Best Actor Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges in the iconic role of US Marshall Ruben "Rooster" Cogburn, this newer, slicker, yet more cinematically classical version of the story (think a deceptively post modern John Ford passion play of sorts) is not only a marvel to watch in its deep focus cinematography by Roger Deakins, but also easily what one could call a tour de force (if one were so inclined to use such a cliche'd but apt term as tour de force) in. To speak these days of Bridges and his acting prowess seems almost as if one is merely a broken record of incessant flattery, praising role after role, movie after movie, as if the man can do no wrong - and I suppose in many ways he cannot - but once again, one finds oneself doing just that very same thing here in True Grit.

The grizzled, gravelly-voiced old drunkard (he does like to pull the cork), inevitably filled with that titular personality trait, that is Bridges' Rooster Cogburn seems more of a real person than Wayne's did, but also in many ways, more of a stereotype as well - yet played with an almost undeniable bravura that is Jeff Bridges. But in the end, it is not even he who holds this film together with such unbridled gusto. It is fourteen year old Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut as Mattie Ross, the young girl who hires the broken down US Marshall to find the man that killed her father, that holds this film up and keeps it going in the direction it damn well should be going.

Present in every scene in the film (with the exception of a short epilogue that takes the film into the twentieth century) Steinfeld, with her pigtails as a constant reminder of the youth she so well hides otherwise, more than holds her own against Bridges and other costars Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper (who incidentally does a pitch perfect Robert Duvall in the role that helped define the once young Mr. Duvall himself) and actually manages to rise above them in a strange melange of adult and childlike characteristics that take Kim Darby's 1969 Maddie into the twenty-first century - albeit via the 1870's - and places the young actress in the same realm as Dakota and Elle Fanning and Chloe Moretz, where she can outdo her adult costars not through sheer precociousness as other child stars have done in the past, but through an acutely adult sensibility and acting style.

Yet, what makes this new True Grit fly, even through the haze of cliche that seems to be invariably linked with this, one of my favourite genres (a bevy of cliche that is still much less rampant than in the original), is the way in which it is written and the manner in which it is filmed. The screenplay, written by the brothers themselves, is a matter-of-fact study of strangely proper linguistics, all spoken with equally strangely proper aplomb by all those involved (albeit a screenplay that is reminiscent of the 1969 version in tone and cadence both, making one believe such verbal sparrings are part of the novel as well). As for the aforementioned look of the film, Deakins rich cinematography, showing how westerns should be filmed, and the Coen's deftly ageless direction that puts their own unique spin on the subject matter, make for a subtly textured work of genre-specific stylization. To cite one scene in particular, the penultimate scene, where Rooster is racing Maddie to a doctor to save her life, the horse they are riding on about to collapse from exhaustion, snow falling in the twilight as if these two characters have been transported to a magical land unlike anything they had previously been in, is, for the two minutes or so that it runs, cinema in its truest and purest form.

And for those of you keeping score at home, this new version is indeed a superior film to the '69 version in many ways. Let's face it, even though Wayne should have won his Oscar for his role in The Searchers long before True Grit came along, if it were not for his strong presence and that of the one-and-done Kim Darby, the original film would be nothing more than a made-for-TV kind of thing - nothing like the powerful works Wayne had been part of in the past. Granted, perhaps not a perfect film (sans for that two minutes or so of pure cinema - and perhaps Hailee Steinfeld's picture-carrying performance) Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit may not hold up to some of the brothers' past works (most notably their four films that come closest to what one would call masterpieces, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men), and I suppose is a slight disappointment when one considers the wish fulfillment that is sadly lacking, but it is still a strongly built, solid motion picture that is stunning to look at and at times gorgeous to behold - in the most manly western-like way of course. [12/26/10]