Wayne who? Coen’s re-adaption blows original out of water.
If a film adapts a book that had previously been turned into a motion picture, is it still a remake? True Grit, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis. Upon its publication, Portis’ novel was quickly made into a movie starring John Wayne. The Coens have said that their film is much more inspired by Portis’ original novel than director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film. Whether you call it a remake or a re-adaption is unimportant. What is important, though, is the fact that the Coen’s latest film is better than Hathaway’s True Grit in almost every single way.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl with the stubbornness of an ox and intelligence to rival nearly every adult she comes across. After a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) kills her father, Ross hires a perpetually drunk and surly US Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track the murderer down. The role is famous as John Wayne won an Oscar for it, his only win in two nominations. But Wayne was not a good actor. He didn’t have to be.
In much the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone continued to make films long after establishing the fact they lacked genuine acting chops, Wayne was able to build a career and legacy on a presence and personality instead of any real acting skills. Bridges is an actor, though, and probably one of the best ones working today. Bridges doesn’t just play a character; he creates a living, breathing person and inhabits their skin. Wayne seemed to just be playing the same character (John Wayne) but Bridges’ Cogburn is just as much a memorable character as any Bridges has played. It almost completely erases the memory of Wayne’s role in much the same way Heath Ledger’s performance of The Joker in The Dark Knight that made Jack Nicholson’s original from Tim Burton’s Batman obsolete.
Instead of the larger than life character Wayne presented for the original True Grit, at any given time looking like he was about to devour whole sets in his need to chew scenes, Bridges plays Cogburn as a man nearing rock bottom. Cantankerous in spirit, quick on the trigger but with a deep, underlying need to connect with others, Bridges’ Cogburn is a man who has rolled in the dirt for most of his life and tangled with some of the worst of the wild west. Some of that dirt has rubbed off on him, of course, and he’s a hardened man by his experience.
In contrast, Matt Damon co-stars as La Boeuf, a sharp-tongued and nattily dressed Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of Chaney. Played by Glen Campbell in the original, La Boeuf hasn’t been at the game as long as Cogburn has and lacks the patience and foresight his contemporary possesses. La Boeuf’s parallel quest frequently brings him into contact with Ross and Cogburn — sometimes working with and sometimes working against each other.
Although they have small roles, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper make memorable appearances as two roughnecks that Cogburn and Ross must face down if the young girl is to have her vengeance. While Brolin is no stranger to playing in the western genre sandbox, his character in True Grit is vastly different than anything audiences have seen him in yet. From the tremble in his voice to the wild-eyed desperation in his eyes, Brolin’s Chaney is in many ways the thematic opposite to Bridges’ self-aware marshal. Pepper, on the other hand, practically disappears into his role — hiding behind a combination of amazing make-up work and a superb performance as the somewhat noble criminal gang leader that Chaney takes in with.
It bugs me to see Hailee Steinfeld being discussed as a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress. For all Jeff Bridges’ amazing work as Cogburn, Steinfeld carries the film on her young but capable shoulders with her amazing performance as a single-minded seeker of vengeance — using her quick wit to get what she wants out of anybody that she thinks can help her. Thankfully, though, the Coens have not forgotten that Steinfeld is playing a 14-year-old girl. Mattie Ross is not an adult and, although she frequently acts like one, she still has the wide-eyed innocence of a child. This innocence is tempered with a gusto and willingness that runs just as deep as any of the male rough-and-tumbles in True Grit. In a year that saw audiences introduced to Hit Girl, Mattie Ross is the best role model I’ve seen in years for young girls.
The real star of the film, though, is the Coen Brothers’ dialogue. Combining their usual linguistic gymnastics with some of the best passages from the original film and novel, the movie soars when it comes to its script. In fact, the film’s script is so good, it actually threatens at times to overwhelm the movie’s actors or visuals. In a bit of mixed blessing, the Coens decided to stay accurate when it comes to characters’ dialect. In a world where there is no television or film to homogenize people’s accents, dialects could vary based on geographical distances less than 100 miles apart. This is the case with True Grit.
Every character is given their own vocal eccentricities — some easier to understand than others. For example, Jeff Bridges has a growling Tom Waits-like rumble in his voice — slurred by years of alcohol abuse. There are times where audiences may wish they had subtitles for the film — especially when they are hit with rapid fire, period-appropriate dialogue full of often obsolete words and phrases — all under the heavy cloak of heavy accents.
The other thing the movie has going for it is its comedy. Like any Coen brother film, True Grit is filled with characters almost just barely larger than life. Without escaping believability, the inhabits of the world of True Grit walk a fine line between rustic western and dark comedy — courting laughs just as much as marvel and amazement. Unlike other films that use contemporary laughs in order to connect audiences with characters, True Grit is a film that manages to find humor in the rustic — providing a boot-load of laughs from antiquated dialogue and phrases.
There is so much working in True Grit‘s favor that it’s easy to look past Roger Deakin’s amazing cinematography and Carter Burwell’s haunting score. Ignoring these pieces of the pie would be like ignoring the cherry on a sundae, though. Everything works as finely tuned clockwork in True Grit — harmoniously synchronized to movie-making perfection. True Grit is not just one of the best films of the year, its one of the best films in the Coens’ long and distinguished filmography.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen Notable Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper Writer(s):Joel and Ethan Coen based off the novel “True Grit” by Charles Portis
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.