The Coen brothers bring True Grit back to the big screen – but was it worth the effort?
The old refrain “the original was better” is often trotted out when commenting on the sacrilegious remake of a commonly-perceived classic, but occasionally, once in a blue moon, it is forced to stay under lock and key. True, the original 1969 adaptation of True Grit wouldn’t be on very many people’s shortlists of the greatest westerns ever made, but it is fondly remembered as the one that netted John Wayne his Oscar. Yet Ethan and Joel Coen’s new version trumps Henry Hathaway’s rather dated original in just about every respect. From the technical production values, to the quality of its central cast, True Grit 2010 is not only a leaner, meaner beast than its predecessor but also a fine western in its own right.
The Coens have gone back to the original novel and written a rather more faithful script, bringing out some of the story’s rougher edges that were glossed over or just plain ignored in Wayne’s version. It also retains the novel’s narration, the film being bookended by an elderly Mattie Ross recounting her attempt to avenge her father’s murder many years before.
Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a forthright, capable and steadfast 14 year old, arrives in town on behalf of her mother to arrange the funeral and ensure justice is served. The murder was committed by drunken farmhand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who fled the area and fell in with a gang led by Ned Pepper (played by Barry Pepper – no relation). Mattie aims to contract the services of a lawman determined enough to bring the coward to justice – a man with “true grit” – and hires Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. marshal with a drinking problem and a reputation for shooting first, asking questions never. Also on Chaney’s trail is a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to take him back to his own state to stand trial.
Where the 1969 version was more or less a vehicle for Wayne, with 21 year-old Kim Darby co-starring as Mattie Ross, the 2010 version instead puts Mattie front and centre. This might have been a dangerous move if the actress playing her wasn’t able to stand toe to toe with the heavyweight Rooster, but Steinfeld (only 13 at the time of shooting) rises to the challenge with amazing ease. It’s a wonderful performance from the newcomer, entirely deserving of her various award nominations. She delivers Mattie’s lines with deliberate speed and clarity, contrasting amusingly with Bridges’ portrayal of Cogburn, dishevelled and slurring his words to the point where they are barely intelligible. One could quibble that Bridges doesn’t quite have Wayne’s iconic lived-in look that the veteran screen cowboy brought to the role, but then he had a lifetime perfecting the part. Damon meanwhile fits in to the regular Coen tradition of quirky supporting characters, played for laughs early on, but later becoming the more sympathetic of the two men.
The Coens historically don’t do ‘conventional’, and one can sense them slightly rushing through the traditional setup in order to get to the meat of the story. Once Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off to find Chaney though, the film settles down nicely in to its tale of adventure, which remains as enjoyable as before. Though rather more subdued than other films in their oeuvre, a few ‘Coen-isms’ do creep through – a loopy medicinal man dressed in a ferocious-looking bear skin outfit being a typical oddity.
Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography makes it worth the trip by itself – dry, parched and cold, the landscape drained of life, a wilderness where only criminals, the disenfranchised and the foolhardy choose to go. Carter Burwell’s score is also a major plus, adding a real sense of period flavour. The question of whether a remake was needed at all remains to a certain extent – it’s not a radical reinvention along the lines of, say, Hammer’s adaptation of Dracula – but given that the original was no classic, and this version is a definite improvement, why bother complaining?
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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