CAPSULE: The Coen Brothers remake one of the classic Western films--a John Wayne Western yet. Their work was cut out for them, remaking a well-liked film, but they manage to make the characters more real and even to give the story a little more edge. Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances and Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own against the other leads. Matt Damon sort of fades into the background. It is not clear we needed another adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, but the production is first rate. It has more texture and more edge. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)or 8/10
Far more remakes are made in the film industry than the public needs. Though filmmakers like to re-film stories that were popular, it is rare that a remake that stands up well to comparison to the original. A filmmaker is obliged to make a film that is still worth seeing even if one remembers the earlier version well. Even Martin Scorsese tried making his own version of someone else's film. The Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2004) he remade as THE DEPARTED (2006), and at least to my mind failed to improve on the original material. But Joel and Ethan Coen fared even worse when they tried to remake the classic Ealing comedy THE LADYKILLERS (1955) with their own 2004 version, a lamentable misfire. So it was surprising when they returned to the remake game with their version of the 1969 TRUE GRIT directed by Henry Hathaway. That film starred John Wayne and Kim Darby as "Rooster" Cogburn and Mattie Ross. The new version stars Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the same roles.
Though you would not know it from the billing on either version of the film, the main character is the fourteen-year-old Mattie. To say she had pluck would almost be an insult. She has the mind and will and sense of an educated adult and is less a character than a force of nature. She apparently never got used to losing an argument and never has to. You do not argue with her, you get out of her way. We learn that her father was killed by an acquaintance, Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin). Chaney then fled to Indian Territory where the law was afraid to follow. Mattie is not satisfied with the legal process so she hires the meanest marshal she can find, Rooster Cogburn. Rooster has a bad reputation for turning fugitives into corpses and that suits Mattie right down to the ground. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also looking for Chaney and joins them. The three go off into dangerous country to track down the killer. The Coen Brothers know how to develop characters through dialog and here they do an excellent job. Perhaps the bickering becomes a little tiresome, but that is part of the point. Charles Portis's novel does not give them a lot to choose from. Both versions are close to the novel, so they are not really two different from each other. The new film's approach is less sentimental and more realistic.
In the 1969 version John Wayne was basically John Wayne with an eye patch. In the new version Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn-- original and unique (thank goodness, you would not want more than one). Bridges is not playing any character he has ever been before and even here he is barely recognizable as Bridges. I suspect that if the audience did not come in knowing it was Jeff Bridges on the screen, they might not even recognize him. He just falls into the character the first time we see him and all that is left showing is Rooster Cogburn. It is just an old marshal who is grizzled, crusty, and very mean. You know where you stand with John Wayne from his other westerns. You are less sure with this bad-tempered stranger. As far as I am concerned that is a win for the Coen Brothers. This film has more of an atmosphere of realism. It has a good feel for the period. If you want to know which film trusts its audience more, compare how each film ends. The first TRUE GRIT is still a very good film, but the Coen Brothers have aced it.
In most years this film would have been a well-above-average entry. This year its competition is mostly fairly weak so that makes this one of the best films of the year. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. If the hymn that Carter Burwell's score is built around sounds familiar, it was the same hymn that the venomous Robert Mitchum sings to lull people off their guard in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/true-grit-2010/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper