Remakes are usually pointless. They’re often just emblematic of the risk averse nature of Hollywood, which wants only to shiny up the tried and true for profit and plaudits. This isn’t even the first time the brothers Coen have remade something: they did it before with The Ladykillers, receiving global yawns for their troubles.
But they’ve also made a career out of making films about other films, or at least films that don’t usually exist as separate, independent entities, but which exist on that ironic meta level as if to comment on the genre they’re indulging in at that given time.
True Grit is fairly straight ahead, down the line, and doesn’t indulge as much in their genre commentary; as in, it’s not like it either deconstructs the earlier flick starring John Wayne, or the Western genre itself. The story comes from a book, and they’ve stayed true both to the book and the earlier film, without indulging Jeff Bridges the way John Wayne was indulged by the makers of the earlier flick.
The real main character of the film isn’t Rooster Cogburn, played as a fat, drunken, vicious idiot by Jeff Bridges, it’s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl looking for justice. Or vengeance, whichever.
She is the true force of nature. Undeterred by insult, threat or the station in frontier life a female in 1880s America is supposed to be relegated to, she has a mission and she intends to complete it at any cost. Her father was gunned down by a stupid hired hand called Chaney (Josh Brolin). No, not Dick Cheney, but the level of viciousness, propensity for shooting people in the face and lack of hygiene is the same.
When she hears that Chaney has lit out for the so-called ‘unsettled’ territories of the Choctaw nation, which is nicely euphemistic for “a place where Manifest Destiny hasn’t killed off all the Injuns yet”, she tries to hire the meanest U.S. Marshall she can find.
And the meanest one she finds is Rooster Cogburn, a loquacious and barely comprehensible former criminal himself, who’s usually drunk on whiskey confiscated from the criminals he usually kills or captures.
These days film critics, reviewers, and nobodies on the tubes of the internets, of whom I am the poster child, usually refer to any new western that gets made contemporarily as being a ‘revisionist’ western because, by default, they try to give a more accurate portrayal of what frontier wild west life was really like, what with people being really dirty and raping and killing each other at the drop of a hat. For the longest time the western was the clean repository for all of America’s hopes, dreams, and shiny myths about itself and how wonderful its early years were as a nation.
Then Clint Eastwood made Unforgiven, and Cormac McCarthy wrote Blood Meridian, and then everyone in every western became pure, unadulterated scum. Of course it’s nowhere near as simplistic as that, but you get the picture, surely. Or at least you grasp enough of where I’m coming from to either agree or disagree.
This version of True Grit feels like it falls under that ‘revisionist’ banner because it has a certain amount of grimness to it, but, in truth it’s really of a piece with the rest of the genre, it’s just that it’s contemporarily made, follows the book more closely, and it has more flowery language than we’re used to in most movies of this type.
Mattie is a joy to behold, and the real joy of watching her in conflict with any of the other characters is that her tenacious nature and stubborn resolve cannot be overcome or dominated. Even when surrounded by men who either dismiss her or wish her harm, she doesn’t quail in the face of peril. That makes her, to my mind, far more formidable than even the dastardly Rooster Cogburn.
Say what you will about Jeff Bridges, positive or negative, in my case thoroughly positive since I adore the man, you have to give him credit for not even coming close to imitating John Wayne’s performance. Instead, he craftily elects to play the role like a highly murderous homeless drunk, talking in a muffled drawl so thick I thought the character was developmentally retarded in some way. No, whereas John Wayne played the drunk aspect for laughs, Bridges plays it deliberately as a pathetic character defect, as cover for a broken man who’s been destroyed by life and the demon drink, who only has one more thing to live for, which is killing motherfuckers dead.
He’s competent and knowledgeable, but only seems barely able to keep it together, drunk or sober, though fearsome he may be. Mattie only seems to have selected him and stayed with him because of his reputation for slaughter, which is something she prizes, and other crims loath him for.
In their journey through the Injun-infested wastes, they are joined by a Texas Ranger called LeBoeuf (no, not that curly haired squirelly fellow who’s been stinking up everything from that dire Indiana Jones sequel to the Wall Street sequel) played well by Matt Damon, who’s every bit the prickly and strange chap that seems mostly to be a prime antagonist for Cogburn, and a rival for Mattie’s affections.
Instead he’s mostly on the same page as Cogburn, though they spar loquaciously and at length over stuff that happened decades ago, presumably during or around the Civil War. Yes, one of the more amusing moments for me was the revelation that Cogburn fought during the war, just not on the side we’d expect. Their sparring, especially the language they use, for me, was a joy to here.
Damon especially is an interesting character, prickly and high-toned, yet very keen to get the job of catching a brutal killer done. He’s been hunting Chaney a long time for the murder of a senator, or a senator’s dog, or both of them, and intends not justice (though there is the intended plan of Chaney dancing at the end of the hangman’s rope), but for the glory of a nice big cash payoff. When he and Cogburn fight over tactics and such, it’s not just personality clashes, but a difference of priority, and, almost, worldview.
When the crims come into the flick, as in, when we finally get to see Mattie’s quarry, and the men he rides with, they are the vicious, scurvy-ridden, bad teeth desperate scumbags you, or at least I, wouldn’t have expected. Though they’re not really given enough time to shine, there’s enough to see that they’re not being elevated to the status of badass desperadoes; they’re just as sad and desperate as our protagonists.
There’s a bleakness there which I guess we’ve come to expect from the Coen Brothers over the years, yet it’s not as bleak as No Country for Old Men, which put forth the proposition that not only do we live in a cold, unfeeling universe, but that the universe itself actively hates good people, but there’s something completely unsentimental about its portrayal of this time and these people. They are, in going along with the usual mythologising, depicted as steadfast, salt of the earth, pioneer types, with Mattie herself as some kind of Puritan – Protestant saint, but only in that there’s barely anything else good to compare them to at that time.
I’m not sure, as well, if you come away with any deeper message or any residual impressions other than that the Coens really do make some beautiful looking films (with obvious help from cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes it all look impossibly beautiful and powerful, without having to resort to John Ford ripoffs at all). The thing, the curious thing I responded to the most was the use of the central musical theme for the film, which is a piece of music from the 1880s used to strong effect in another classic film, being Night of the Hunter. There’s a famous scene where Robert Mitchum, a vicious fake preacher with love and hate tattooed onto his knuckles, sings the song as he plans to attack two children under the protection of Lillian Gish’s character. In a strange interlude, they sing a harmonious duet of “leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms/ leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms”. I’m not sure why they used it other than an ‘inside’ reference, but I’m glad all the same.
I’m not going to indulge in dissertations on whether the flick is worthy of awards and who should get what, and why Hailee Steinfeld was nominated for Best Supporting Actress when she’s in every goddamn scene of the film, but I don’t think the flick really is all that and a bag of chips, Oscars, or muffins with cilantro on them. But it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. The various set pieces are tremendously well handled, and the flick walks the right line between the harrowing elements of Mattie’s journey to adulthood, and Rooster’s journey towards doing something meaningful with his life. I have no complaints as to how the flick played out, and I am especially glad as to the unsparingly unsentimental coda which ends the flick, and which shows how little the Coens care about mollycoddling audiences, to our mutual benefit.
7 times falling into a nest of rattlesnakes seems like a bad idea even at the best of times out of 10
“But we promised to bury the poor soul inside!”
- “Ground's too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.” – ever the practical man – True Grit