By: Oberst von Berauscht (A Toast) –
Remakes are like meeting a long lost friend.They turn up when nobody expects them to, ask for your money, and hang around long enough for you to remember why they became “long lost” friends to begin with.By this time it is too late; your house is robbed by an army of hobos.When you come home, you find broken beer bottles in the bedroom, a used diaphragm in the sink, and somebody managed to shit in the fridge.
You really don’t want to open it…
So when I heard that the Coen brothers were remaking Henry Hathaway’s classic 1969 Western True Grit (starring John Wayne), I had ample reason for concern.After all, the Coens’ last attempt at a remake was The Ladykillers, a film that certainly ranks as one of their weakest, and pales next to the original film.
True Grit is based on the 1968 Novel of the same name, by writer Charles Portis.The story centers on the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14 year old girl who leaves home shortly after the shooting death of her father, ostensibly to settle some business in town.Instead of breaking into pieces, she is given instead to determination.Mattie asks around town, looking for the toughest Federal Marshal to help her hunt down her father’s slayer, a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).She is referred to Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a hard living man who, when not on the bottle, is a determined and deadly officer.On their journey, they forge an uneasy alliance with fortune seeking Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) in order to bring Chaney to justice.
As with all remakes, I felt the need to see it, if only to vindicate my fears. When the trailer was released, however, I started to get this shivering sensation down my spine. Could this be a rare exception to the rule? Could this be… better than the original?
You’re goddamn right it is.
This is also easily one of the year’s best films.Not only that, but it is a fairly ordinary Western; one that is not overly artsy, or postmodern, or even “revisionist” in the classical sense.How did the Coen brothers manage this feat?
First off, the film is simply beautiful, from the opening shot of a dead body lying sadly in the falling snow as a rider takes off for the wilderness to the final image of Mattie silhouetted against the Great Plains, walking slowly away from the family plot.Every image in the film is constructed with artful simplicity.Cinematographer Roger Deakins has worked on many of the most beautifully shot films of the last 20 years, from The Shawshank Redemption and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to No Country for Old Men and many others.He has an Oscar coming to him, and this just might be the film that he gets it.
Another thing that makes the film so strong, especially in comparison to the original, is the way the characters are constructed. The emotional center of the film is the character of Mattie Ross, as she is for all intents and purposes the main character. While Rooster is a fun character, this new adaptation shows that it is more important that he remain somewhat enigmatic to Mattie (and the audience as well). By showing too much of his background, you start to question how such a slovenly, drunken sot ever managed to remain a U.S. Marshal, or even managed to stay out of prison. It chips away at his believability.
Jeff Bridges’ performance as Rooster Cogburn is easily the most grizzled character to appear in film since Gabby Johnson.
Jeff Bridges ups the ante from his Oscar winning performance as “Bad” Blake character in last year’s Crazy Heart by playing a man so far removed from anything resembling refined that you’d almost believe he practiced for the role by going on an eighteen week moonshine bender in Bumfuck, Arkansas.This is truly a performance that needs to be seen to be believed.
Matt Damon steps into the shoes of Texas Ranger La Boeuf with confidence and bluster. In both films he is concerned mostly with the prize money due to him for capturing Chaney, but Damon transforms him from simply a fortune seeker to a complex character, desperately trying to prove he is as big as his ego. Tom Chaney is presented here by Josh Brolin as a half-witted gunman, motivated by greed and overall lack of morals. His one intelligent trait is his propensity for joining up with other gunmen, knowing he is dangerously incompetent left to his own devices. That Brolin manages to convey all this with probably less than 15 minutes of time on camera is an accomplishment of its own.
Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is also a role worth its weight in gold. Her Mattie is a harsh young woman, one who makes up for her lack of propriety with sharp wit, masterful business sense, and fearless resolve.In the original True Grit, you find it cute that Mattie wants to come along on the ride with the men.This Mattie is a different animal, so much so you almost wonder why Rooster and La Boeuf don’t immediately spot this and put her on point.This is Hailee’s first real break as an actor and I wish her all the best, because if this is just a sample of things to come I think we’ve got something rare heading our way in the near future.Hollywood needs actresses that aren’t afraid to also be an actor.Katherine Hepburn had the ability to break the glass ceiling, and I sense that kind of unrestrained energy from young Hailee.
Watch it. Joel and Ethan Coen have made a classic Western even better by fine-tuning the flaws of the original and populating it with strong performers.This is one Western that neither you nor the academy can easily ignore.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever Rooster Drinks
Take a Drink: when you’re not entirely sure what Rooster just said
Take a Drink: whenever someone is shot