Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen || Produced by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin
Screenplay by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen || Starring: Hailee Steinfield, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Music by: Carter Burwell || Cinematography: Roger Deakins || Editing by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 111 minutes
Remakes and re-imaginings are often looked down upon in today’s film world, a time that is oversaturated with franchise do-overs and endless reboots of classic titles, which are easily recognizable by the masses and thus prime material for profit. People can rarely go a week at the cinema without bumping into titles that aren’t modern takes on older narratives. However, we as responsible, mature film-fans need to avoid falling into into a habit just as excessive as Hollywood’s of endlessly remaking movies, and that is always dismissing them as unnecessary or doomed to fail. People shouldn’t automatically condemn any re-imagining of a previously released title as “offensive” or “ruining” the original’s honor, because for one thing, the original will always be there (unless of course your series’ creator is George Lucas and he refuses to release the original, unaltered copies), and two, a remake is simply a person’s interpretation of someone else’s ideas. It is an entirely neutral concept that has as much chance of being a success as it does a failure. In other words, we as film-viewers shouldn’t count our chickens before they are hatched.
2010’s True Grit remake is a more faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel of the same name, possessing much of the book’s humor and keeping the central focus of the film on the young teenage heroine, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield), who initiates the narrative action as a daughter who sets out to bring her father’s murderer to justice. The role of US Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, whom Ross hires to capture or kill her father’s killer, previously played by John Wayne in the 1969 film-adaptation, is dialed back in terms of importance to the plot relative to Ross’ character; however, he’s still a major role that frequent Coen Brothers-collaborator, Jeff Bridges, plays with skill and style.
This newest True Grit is also interesting in that it is the Coen Bro’s first straightforward genre-film. It is neither the dark combination of thriller and neo-western like their 2007 film, No Country for Old Men (2007), nor is it an absurdist, satirical picture like many of their cult comedies such as Fargo (1996) or The Big Lebowski (1998). It possesses little in the way of dense, complex symbolism or genre-deconstruction. The film is a fun, traditional western that sticks to the basics of old-school classical filmmaking with strong characters, imposing villains, and a well paced, entertaining adventure. The gun-slinging violence here is very much “action” in the traditional sense of the word, rather than the poetic analysis of human brutality found in No Country.
With all this mind, it should go without saying that True Grit is the Coen Bro’s most mainstream, accessible film. It feels like a good old-fashioned Hollywood western in many ways, although it packs the signature intelligence and technical skill typical of all Coen Bros. movies.
Being a traditional character-driven narrative, True Grit depends on the likability and personality of its cast. Steinfield was well cast as the 14 year-old justice-seeker, possessing spunk, a determined attitude, and an amusing yet charming youthful naivety. We sympathize with her plight to complete her dangerous goal with her adult lawmen comrades. Her interactions with Bridges’ Cogburn and Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger LeBoeuf showcase humanity in all three characters. Each character is distinct and likable in their own way, with the Coen Bros writing them with surprising depth beneath their one-dimensional outward appearance, and giving each member a satisfying arc of their own. Even Josh Brolin takes advantage of his limited screen-time as Tom Chaney, the man responsible for Ross’ father’s death. His reveal near the end of the film features a hilarious exchange between him and Ross in which Steinfield’s character comically struggles to figure how to shoot Chaney with a pistol.
The camerawork by the Coen Bros includes impressive landscape photography and tight action choreography. The gun violence is raw, visceral, and works well against the desolate yet vibrant southwestern backdrop. Despite being their first PG-13 film since Intolerable Cruelty (2003), the Coen Bros’ action scenes hit hard with suspense and expert pacing, letting the six-shooters and repeater rifles draw you into the cowboy-outlaw confrontations. It’s a good showcase of how effective filmmaking can take even “toned-down” violence packaged for mainstream audiences and make it satisfying.
All things considered, True Grit is one of the better modern American westerns and a welcome addition to the Coen Bros’ filmography. It goes to show you how intelligent and satisfying a standard Hollywood genre film can be if put in the right hands. Sure, the movie has its weaknesses like any adventure, namely an eye-roller of an epilogue that overemphasizes the independence of Ross’ character, but these are minor scuffs on a well constructed, well written western that’s as purebred as anything John Wayne ever starred in. True Grit is far from the most ambitious or creative of the Coen Bros’ projects, but sometimes, an old-fashioned Hollywood shoot ’em up handmade (even remade) by proven American auteurs is just what the doctor ordered.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Coen Bros stick to the basics and get the most out of their rootin’ tootin’ screenplay. The characters are well drawn, the adventure is both violent and funny, and the western action scenes are as exciting as they come. Little, if anything in the screenplay pushes the envelope, but with the Coens’ direction behind it, I don’t think the story needs much narrative innovation.
— However… the epilogue ends the adventure on a somewhat sour not with its clunky narration and contrived character summary.
? John Wayne? I do not know that man…