The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

True Grit pt. 2

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The good news is that the Coen brothers managed to at least pump the brakes on a Hollywood machine steaming out of control to remake any movie or television series that could in some way trigger nostalgia and thus generate a profit; all too often the machine has generated crap, crap, and more crap over the past twenty years.  A short list of things that should never have been touched and that amounted to little more than cinematic turds includes The Manchurian Candidate, Halloween, The Fog, King Kong, Dawn of the Dead, Miami Vice, The Karate Kid, Rollerball…  the list is too long.

But thankfully we have this new True Grit to rank up there with the likes of The Fugitive and 3:10 to Yuma as exemplars of what can be done to remake a film into something as good as or better than the original.

On the surface alone, the Coen’s vision of True Grit looks entirely different than what Henry Hathaway came up with in 1969.  It’s a dark film shot on a different grade of celluloid that is a good match for the winter shadows and dark costumes of many of the characters.  The light is yellow and dingy in the first half of the film as it seeps into courtrooms, offices, and boarding houses.  Together, the blacks and grays and yellows pale and rudify the skins of the characters; even Mattie Ross, the fourteen-year old narrator, is pale and stark.  The light, though, changes noticably in the second half when the film moves almost entirely outdoors into more natural (if harsher) winter light.

This plays well with the tone of the film.  It is a stark portrait of justice; not justice pursued for what is right by the law, but “eye-for-an-eye” justice that is pursued in a cold, deliberate manner by self-righteous, scripture-citing Mattie.  Fully aware of his reputation, she employs Rooster Cogburn as a bounty hunter to pursue Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father in cold blood.  Punishment alone is not enough for Mattie; she wants Chaney to know that it is her extension of justice that he will face if apprehended– it is a distinction she makes with LeBoeuf the Texas Ranger, who is pursing Chaney for different reasons.  It’s a moot point because Mattie shoots Chaney herself at the first opportunity, and then shoots him again and kills him in the climax of the film.

Establishing the proper tone for the film is perhaps all the Coen’s needed to do to improve upon the glossy, idealistic True Grit of 1969.  But they do more.  They find excellent winter settings in the mountains and woods of Indian Territory in which the action unfolds.  They make excellent use of Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, as Chaney and Lucky Ned Pepper respectively.  They are a grizzled, ugly, cold-blooded pair of antagonists who add great dimension to the film in the 10-15 minutes of screen time they are given.  Pepper’s performance in particular is just about as far away as you can get from Robert Duvall’s clean-shaven, virile take on the role over 40 years ago.  They also let Jeff Bridges find his own Rooster Cogburn, though in some respects he’s close to John Wayne.  Cogburn is a sometimes comical character because of his propensity to “pull a cork,” but the man has his complexities and his dark side.  There is emphasis placed on Cogburn’s Civil War background; he rode as a marauder with Confederate guerillas William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson.  His turn as a federal marshall, and on the right side of the law, feels temporary at best–  the first glimpse of him in the book and in both movies is under a cross-examination in which his tactics of pursuit and apprehension and his outright brutality are called into question.  Bridges plays the part well without imitating John Wayne or overblowing the role as Wayne did.  He is helped along the way by screenwriting that keeps Cogburn as a large supporting character and not the focus of the film.  Mattie’s frame of narration is adhered to in this version, which helps keep Cogburn pretty much as is from Charles Portis’ book.  Cogburn remains a dark and powerful force who only happens to be on the side of the law Mattie needs to enact her vengeance at that time.

None of this is to say that True Grit is perfect.  It’s not.  I am still troubled by the trailer that makes the film out to be a hip, stylized remake of an archetypal Western, as if that look is what it takes to appeal to the general movie-going public.  The Johnny Cash rendition of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” used in the trailer doesn’t appear in the film.  And why would it?  The film isn’t stylized at all, and to use the Cash song would be a sin against the tone the Coen’s established.  Furthermore, the Coen’s are guilty once again of introducing characters that have no impact on the plot, and dallying with plot elements that don’t advance the story.  Most notably, there is the bearskin-clad medicine man who does little more than point Cogburn and Mattie in a certain direction; a direction they wouldn’t need but that the Coen’s tampered with the plot of the book and contrived a greater conflict between Cogburn and LeBoeuf that separated them and brought about the first encounter with Ned Pepper’s gang in a manner inorganic and unnecessary from the book.  They also neglected a key scene before they set off to pursue Chaney in which LeBoeuf and Cogburn haggle over the terms of their work together and establish a healthy distrust–if not dislike– for one another.  LeBoeuf and Cogburn separate again near the end of the film, which skews the climatic Mattie/Chaney and Cogburn/Pepper battles.  It all ties together well enough, though, to make these minor considerations.

To me, it’s important to savor True Grit and take it for what it is:  A great film born from the vision of respected film makers that not only outdoes the original, but transcends the source material in ways most movies don’t.  Though don’t get used to seeing remakes of this caliber.  A quick internet search revealed that remakes of Conan the Barbarian and Police Academy are pending.  I won’t be holding my breath in the hopes that anybody can do with them what the Coen’s did with True Grit.  Perhaps Robert Harrick said it best when he wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may… .”

Written by seeker70

December 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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