The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit (2010)

My usual stance on remakes is why bother remaking a good movie? There's hundreds and thousands of bad movies made over the years that would benefit from a do-over.  So with that idea, I was both excited and skeptical when I heard the news that the Coen brothers were remaking the 1969 western True Grit.  It's a solid western best known for John Wayne's performance, one that earned him the only Oscar of his already impressive career.  I love westerns, but this was one -- even with its flaws -- that really didn't need to be remade.  Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and all suspicions aside I did want to see this 2010's True Grit.

Joel and Ethan Coen have shown a knack for making great movies out of the simplest ideas.  With the talent involved and a strong source novel to work off of by Charles Portis, it would be hard for such two talented directors to mess this up.  I read all the reviews and the on-set reports when the movie was being filmed.  The remake would stick closer to the period appropriate dialogue of the novel and not the 1969 version, it would have little of the comedy Coen fans have come to expect, and most of all it would be consistently period authentic.  I was more skeptical because the trailer looked to mimic the movie, not the book.  And what did I take away? It's a completely unnecessary remake of a movie, but an entertaining and well-made (if a little cold) remake.

After her father was murdered by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas to pick up her father's body.  Of course, she has some other plans. Chaney rode out of town after the murder and disappeared into the Indian Territory, but no law intends to follow him.  Mattie hires a fat, one-eyed drunk of a U.S. Marshal with a hard-earned reputation, Ruben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to bring Chaney to justice so he can hang for what he did.  A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney's trail and decides to tag along with Cogburn who inteds to leave the strong-willed Mattie behind. Mattie has other ideas, joining them on the trail as they head into the territory after her father's killer.

Starting with the claims that the Coens insisted on period accuracy, well, it's spot on.  The dialogue sounds like conversations someone would have had in the late 1860s and early 1870s in Arkanas and Oklahoma, a tribute to Portis' source novel.  The pitch, sound and even the give and take of the dialogue sound more authentic than just about any other western I've seen.  That's the whole movie, authentic down to the smallest details.  The west was a nasty place where men would spend days and weeks on the trail without a chance at a bath or a soft bed.  That lack of niceties reflects on how they looked as you'll see in the movie.  Everything from the clothes to the hats to the guns and firearms is real.  This is no glamorized look at what the romantic wild west was like.  This was a time where only the tough survived because if you weren't, you'd be dead in minutes.

If you're going to hire an actor to play a role that many consider to be among John Wayne's best, you had better choose someone who is up to the task.  Wisely, Jeff Bridges does not play Rooster Cogburn like Wayne did, putting his own spin on this already well-known character.  Yes, the basics are there, the ratty eye-patch, the constant drinking, the unkempt look.  Bridges still manages to make Rooster endearing through all his flaws and faults with an honesty and a code of honor that's helped him survive several years working as  a U.S. Marshal.  He isn't a particularly heroic man, but he does what's necessary to get the job done, principles be damned.  Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and I'm glad he was given a chance to play a role like this.  Immediately talk of Oscar buzz started around his performance.  I don't know if it's Oscar worthy, but with a part that could have blown up in his face, he made it his own.

One of the biggest flaws of the 1969 True Grit is the casting of the Mattie and LaBoeuf characters, but here the casting of those two integral parts is a strong point of the movie.  Young 14-year old Steinfeld is a scene-stealer as strong-willed, downright stubborn Mattie Ross.  She intends to see her father's killer brought to justice, and nothing is going to stop her.  Every so often, a glimmer of the fact that she's still a kid shines through, including one early campfire scene.  More than that though, what works so well is her ease in scenes with such accomplished actors.  She has a great chemistry with Bridges especially and shares a great scene with Damon late in the movie.  As for Damon as the Texas Ranger, he too puts his own unique spin on the part.  He's got a twang to his voice and provides a suitable counter to Cogburn's drunken antics.  Brolin's part as Tom Chaney amounts to an extended cameo, and also look for the underrated Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned Pepper, the leader of the gang Chaney signs on with.

So what's missing from the movie? I've thought about it, and just can't come up with anything.  I read Portis' novel years ago and don't remember it making much of an impression on me so I can't say if the tone is dead-on.  It's a beautiful movie, starkly filmed in Texas with Carter Burwell's period-appropriate score playing in the background. The story can be a little slow getting where it wants, but even then it's about 20 minutes shorter than the 1969 version.  There isn't much in the way of action, but when it comes around, it's startling and violent although not as graphic as other Coen brothers movies.  Some major things have changed -- including one key character's demise and another surprising twist in an epilogue -- but for the better.  The ending (like much of the movie overall) left me cold even considering it is scary in how appropriate it is for both the characters involved and the story overall.

Now no matter how good the 2010 version is it's impossible not to compare it to the 1969 version which I'm planning on reviewing in a week or so.  My biggest question is the iconic scene where Cogburn charges across a field, reins in his teeth, a six-shooter in either hand at Pepper's gang with the famous line 'Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!' Thankfully Bridges and Co. nail the scene and the following fall-out.  So how do I rate this movie? I liked it but didn't love it.  It's nothing particularly new, but it is a good old-fashioned western story, good guys vs. bad guys.  It is completely unnecessary, but I liked it in the end because of the immense talents involved in making it.

True Grit <---trailer (2010): ***/**** 

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