Upon hearing about the Coen brothers re-teaming with Jeff Bridges to remake the film (the brothers will argue this point… more on that later) that earned the uber iconic John Wayne his one and only Oscar, I felt all the movie geek DNA in my body tingle with excitement. The Coen brothers never do anything in a straight forward fashion… what would they do with the Dude playing the Duke? Well, the answer has come in the form of True Grit… and surprisingly, it’s a fairly by the books (history books for sure) western. With the exception of a few very Coen-like moments, I was shocked at how different this film felt from most of their other works… and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Let me get this out of the way now… I’ve never seen the original True Grit. I’ve seen many moments in various retrospectives and clip reels… but because I have rarely been a fan of John Wayne, I never went out of my way to see it. I am however, a fan of Jeff Bridges. And having at the very least a basic sense of film history, I can recognize the parallels between both Wayne in Bridges in that they are both actors toward the end of their careers (hopefully not really the case for Bridges… but he is not quite a spring chicken these days) and like Wayne, Bridges in later life earning more respect than he ever could have imagined while younger. That’s as far as my comparison between the two will go. I can only speak to what I saw last night… not a film from 1969 that I simply not got around to. Also, the Coen’s swear up and down that this is a film based on the original Charles Portis novel of the same name, not the film. I’ll take them at their word.
Opening this story is young 14 year old Mattie Ross, played with a ridiculous maturity and preternatural ability by an actual 14 year old newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld. We get the setting immediately… dusty, dirty and dry… probably late 1870s… Mattie’s father has been killed by the killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for two pieces of gold and she wants him to come to justice. In order for her to find Chaney, she hires a drunken murderous U.S. Marshall by the name of Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). If the Dude sounded as if his larynx had been soaked in white Russians and tasty buds, Rooster’s voice has been marinaded in cheap whiskey and hand rolled tabacco. Big and gruff… unkempt and filthy… cantankerous and repugnant… you still can’t help loving Jeff Bridges. Also in the hunt for Chaney is a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef… only the Texans would remove any French influence) (Matt Damon). Damon plays LaBoeuf as everything Rooster isn’t. Dedicated, upright… and a Ranger much in the way a postman may see his job… rain or shine or snow or sleet… Barry Pepper has a stand out role as the gang leader helping Chaney out, and the rest of the cast seems to come straight out of a classic western.
Much of my dislike for westerns seems to stem from production values of many of the films from the genre’s heyday of the 50’s and 60’s. There were often scenes with epic vistas filmed in Cimenascope, Vistavision, Panavision or some other new and bigger way to see a movie and bring the wild west into the theater… and then much of the film is performed like a play on a crappy set with painted mesas and cacti. Not to mention the polyester gingham. I was rarely able to lose myself in a western… something always pulled me out of the experience. In the last few years… I’d say since Unforgiven, a certain reality has been injected in the genre. A desire to depict the era in as unromantisized a way as possible. I appreciate this change. In this incarnation of True Grit, gone are the vistas (only toward the end to we see anything close to mesa sunset shot)… instead replaced by close shots of woods and brush. Clothing looks practical, heavy and worn. The language is one of the few things that gives this film a Coen brothers edge. Apparently contractions aren’t much in vogue in the late 19th. century. There is a cadence and an inflection to the way everyone speaks that at once seems odd yet completely fitting. There is a vestige of the southern manner to these people who have seemingly cast off living in the civilized world in favor of living on the frontier. Everything feels wild…
Young Mattie hires Rooster because she has heard he has true grit… they both discover she too has some true grit in her as well. Fantastic production values, incredible cast, impeccable direction, awesome script. If you are a fan of the western genre… if you are a fan of the occasional burst of Coen brothers violence (one scene in particular has their stamp all over it)… if you are simply a fan of the Dude, then you must abide. This was a very enjoyable popcorn movie. I am not going to say I was emotionally overcome with it… no hankies needed… but an absolute solid bit of storytelling. So saddle up pard’… down some whiskey and roll your smoke and git out and see this movie.
The Blahg abides,
Cornelius J. Blahg