Friday, August 19, 2011

True Grit (2010)

Directed by the Coen Brothers.
2010. Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.
Jeff Bridges
Hailee Steinfeld
Matt Damon
Josh Brolin
Barry Pepper
Dakin Matthews

Fear doesn’t enter into Rooster Cogburn’s (Bridges) thinking. This is why Mattie Rose (Steinfeld) picks him when she decides to hire a U.S. Marshall to track down Tom Chaney (Brolin), her father’s murderer. Mattie is all of fourteen years old. Whe’s left her widowed mother behind with her younger sister and aims to dee justice done. Rooster reluctantly accepts the job since he’s not one to turn down money. He’s definitely not keen on her insistence on tagging along. However, he learns rather quickly she is not to be denied. Off they go, on the trail of a killer. Much to Mattie’s chagrin, they’re joined by Texas Ranger Mr. LaBoeuf (Damon). He’s after Chaney himself for killing a senator back in the lone star state. This is a remake of the Academy Award winning 1969 western which stars John Wayne in the role of Rooster.

This time around, Rooster is played by Jeff Bridges. Though he’ll never be anywhere near as iconic as the Duke, I believe Bridges to be the superior actor. Both men do a superb job with the role. After all, Wayne won an Oscar for his effort. Still, Wayne is undercut by his own celebrity. We’re always watching John Wayne, just with an eyepatch. In Bridges’ case, the eyepatch, unruly beard, weathered skin and gruffier-than-usual voice all help him to get lost int his character. He moves differently than the Dude (The Big Lebowski), or Bad Blake (Crazy Heart). He is not Jeff Bridges, he’s Rooster Cogburn.

To maximize Bridges’ performance he has to have someone who’s work can stand next to his without wilting. Hailee Steinfeld gives us that and more. Her Mattie is as feisty and determined as they come. She selects Rooster for the job because she wants a man with true grit. It becomes apparent she may be even grittier than he. It seems fear doesn’t enter into her thinking, either.

Narratively, there are differences between this and the original. Of course, the movie explicitly tells us at the beginning it’s based on the novel of the same name. Having not read it, I’m ignorant of which changes come from those pages and which are from the minds of our directors, the Coen brothers. Almost all of their choices feel right. Most notably, the character Mr. LaBoeuf is very different. In the original, Glen Campbell played him with a “gee-willikers” look on his face and a “just happy to be here” attitude. Damon plays him straight-faced and just as head-strong as his two uneasy partners. As a result, the dynamics between the three works differently. It’s more contentious. Best of all, we believe this LaBoeuf stands a real chance in a fight with Rooster. We thought the original did not.

A few of the changes are pure 21st century. For one, the violence is certainly more violent. This is no gore-fest, but the camera doesn’t shy away either. We never meet either of Mattie’s parents. It’s clear that even her dad is not important to this movie. Mattie’s quest to avenge him is. This version is also wisely much more politically correct. Tom Chaney is hiding out, but the place he takes refuge in is not called “Indian Country”. The Asian store owner is barely in the movie. The same goes for the Black farmhand, presumably an ex-slave, who escorts Mattie into the town where her father was killed. However true to its source keeping those things may be, they’re not needed. The Coens have effectively trimmed the fat, giving us leaner and still fulfilling meat. Rare is the remake that can stand up next to its inspiration. This one not only does, I believe it surpasses it.

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