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For Your Consideration: 'True Grit'

It is generally a terrible idea to remake any movie, and the better the original was, the more likely the remake will be a dog. That being said, one can hardly be surprised that the Coen brothers have done the impossible, remaking the classic 1969 Western, which featured an iconic performance by John Wayne, and ending up with a True Grit that is tauter and has more rounded characters than the original. To Jeff Bridges fell the thankless task of playing the John Wayne role of Rooster Cogburn, an aging, one-eyed (the patch is over the right eye, nota bene, rather than the left in Wayne's portrayal), alcoholic U.S. Marshall who shoots first and asks questions later. Bridges dances entertainingly along the line between gravity and parody, grinding and mashing his lines to the point of near-incomprehensibility, portraying a stumbling, bluff shipwreck of a man who still possesses the shreds of a conscience. Few have mastered so perfectly the art of the bemused and blank stare: some combination of these qualities adds up to the "true grit" of the title. Bridges would not get my vote for Best Actor, but neither would such recognition be undeserved (we have so admired him for major roles in movies like Fearless, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and of course The Big Lebowski, and his win last year for Crazy Heart makes an award this year pretty unlikely).

In their screenplay and direction, Joel and Ethan Coen create the same mix of playful satire -- a meta-approach to movie making that is hyper-conscious of so much film history -- and serious drama that has made some viewers uncomfortable with their previous films. (The film's broad popular appeal, which not many of their films have enjoyed, could nudge them ahead in the competition for the Best Director award.) The mythical American West is adoringly captured in almost grisaille cinematography by Roger Deakins, a barren and windswept canvas, both visually and morally. The standout performance comes from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, a Los Angeles native who was the same age as her character, Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old spitfire who comes from her farm home to avenge the shooting of her father. With remarkable gumption, Mattie settles her father's affairs -- in one of the best sequences of the film, she negotiates fearlessly with a local trader over the money owed her for her father's horses -- and hires Cogburn to hunt down the man who shot her father, Tom Chaney (a menacing but also comically hapless Josh Brolin).

The Coens keep the story closer to its source, Charles Portis's 1968 novel, than the Wayne film did, reportedly lifting much of the dialogue directly and keeping the action focused on Mattie's bold, even reckless teenage view of the world. She is the smartest person in the story, making Biblical allusions (to Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, for example), explaining Latin legal terms (malum in se), and correcting grown men on the spelling of "futile." It is a mistake for Mattie to be considered a supporting role, given how the story really revolves around her in the Coens' casting of the story: at the same time, it is a mistake that may give Steinfeld a fighting chance, well deserved, at winning an Oscar in her first major feature.

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Matt Damon is hilarious as the vainglorious LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is hot on the trail of Chaney for the unrelated murder of a state senator. His attempts to impress Mattie and Cogburn are met only with scorn, but his pride, symbolized in a stubborn cowlick that makes one tuft of hair stand ridiculously on end like a cockscomb, does not allow him to work gracefully with them or give up his quest. It is a performance of many charms that does not quite rise to award level (Damon was not nominated), although that may have as much to do with an essentially comic film not seeming as weighty. As far as its merits as a film, although its Best Picture nomination is justified, it falls short of the highest honors, because for all of its Coen-brand whimsy, it does not hit upon any new territory in the genre, unlike the crushingly bleak Unforgiven did, for example. It has appeal because it stays vinegary when it could go sugary, and a subtle score by the Coens' regular musical collaborator, Carter Burwell, is appropriately spare. The tune that runs through the film, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms by Elisha A. Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter, is only from the late 19th century but seems timeless. One hardly needs to wait for the sung version of this hymn at the final credits to hear the words in one's mind, and of all people Mattie certainly seems to feel that she has nothing to dread, nothing to fear, even though she certainly does.


CMrok93 said...

It was certainly disappointing coming from The Coens, but none the less it was at least entertaining. Good Review!

Anonymous said...

bridges will not get your vote? sounds as though you're an ampas member.

Charles T. Downey said...

bridges will not get your vote? sounds as though you're an ampas member.

Would not get my vote -- the conditional tense, the unspoken condition being if I had a vote, which I do not.