Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Like most parents of small children, my wife and I take whatever opportunity we get to leave our child in the care of their grandparents and enjoy some time without the cloying sounds of Veggie Tales Christmas in the background. Two nights ago, to take a break from both our child and the bedlam of a house with ten people in it, we went to go see True Grit in the comfort of one of the most luxurious theater experiences around: VIP (21 and over) seating at the Muvico Village 12 in Fredericksburg, VA. (Quick side note: The only reason I was seeing this movie at all was because it was one of only two movies–the other being the unappealing Little Fockers–that had VIP seating available. My wife and I were planning on seeing Black Swan (see Chris and Pac’s “Take Two” review here), but since Muvico moved it from the VIP screens in favor of newer–if not necessarily better–material, my wife insisted that we go see the Coen Brothers’ remake of the John Wayne classic despite the fact that she is an avowed Western hater.) Overall, while the movie itself–though solid–felt somewhat unfulfilling, the combination of True Grit’s sharp dialogue, memorable characters, understated score, and lack of talkative small children made for an enjoyable evening.
To get this out of the way at the outset, I have not seen the 1969 original (dir. Henry Hathaway) that won John Wayne his only Oscar as Best Actor. Despite that, my view of this remake is influenced heavily by my impressions of John Wayne from other classics like Stagecoach and The Searchers (which I have yet to get Chris to watch).
True Grit tells the story of the sharp-tongued girl Mattie Ross (Haitee Steinfeld) who hires the alcoholic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and bring him to justice. As the title suggests, the movie is more about the two main characters than about the plot itself. In fact, the plot by the end is rather subsidiary to Rooster’s redemption and the bond formed between Mattie and Rooster. The main strength of the film–as one would hope in a character-driven film–is the characters. Despite the presence of Oscar-winner Bridges, who seems to play an 1880s version of Dude Lebowski at points, Haitee Steinfeld dominates the screen from the outset until just before the end with her portrayal of Mattie. Rarely at a loss for words, Mattie virtually always has the verbal upper hand, engaging in stinging repartee with every character who stands in the way of her goal of settling her father’s affairs and avenging his death. That Steinfeld–who does not look a day over her character’s fourteen years–is able to so convincingly play a rather unrealistic character is deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nomination buzz she has been receiving. Mattie and Cogburn are assisted in their search for Chaney by the rather foppish Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Given that most Westerns venerate LaBoeuf’s outfit and Texans in general, that the Ranger is the butt of most of the film’s jokes for his Texas origins is one of the more comical elements of the film. Bridges is adequate in filling Wayne’s impossibly large shoes as Rooster Cogburn. While I don’t think anyone else around could have played the part any better (unless maybe Sean Connery could come out of retirement and learn a passable Western accent), Cogburn, until the very end of the film, comes across as somewhat cartoonish, amusing dialogue notwithstanding. Bridges may be able to deliver quips well, but he cannot bring the same presence and gravity to the film that Wayne provides.
In terms of the construction of the film, the cinematography seems rather understated, and the camera–with the exception of a shootout in the Indian territory and Cogburn’s redemptive sequence–does not insist on itself to the viewer. While landscapes are often a character of sorts in Westerns, the Coens employ very few of the long and very long establishing shots used to show off the unforgiving landscape in most Westerns and even in their recent Western No Country for Old Men. The score, composed by Carter Burwell, is the only element of the film from which I felt a distinct, though gentle, artistic insistence. Consisting of simple piano and string variations on the venerable hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the music imbues the film with an undeniable sense of nostalgia, comparable to the effect of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on Ken Burns’s Baseball documentary. The moving nostalgic tilt both softens and complicates some of the film’s more violent scenes.
While there is much to like about the parts of the film, the sum of the movie is somewhat lacking. Oddly, despite the 110-minute running time, the film felt like it could have used another 10-15 minutes before the climax to make the transition between Cogburn’s lowest point and his redemption feel less abrupt. Perhaps this sense comes from the large amount of time that the Coens took to establish Mattie and, to a lesser extent, Rooster’s character before the primary action of the film.
With the exception of the opening sequences with Mattie and Rooster, many of the following scenes–while enjoyable–feel somewhat underdeveloped as a whole. While the Coen Brothers are famous for films with the sort of (often literally) messy endings that make the viewers, like J.K. Simmons’ CIA character in the Coens’ Burn After Reading, ask, “What’d we learn, Palmer?” (to which the only appropriate reply can be “I don’t know, sir”), the underdevelopment of the plot and the film’s ambivalent ending feels somewhat less organic than in some of the Coens’ other films (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men to name a few).
Much of the early reaction to news of True Grit’s production (including this blog in this August post), before anyone really saw it, was that the film, attempting to remake a classic and an iconic actor’s part in it, was unnecessary. However, the Coens clearly feel otherwise, and the reason for it may be in the nostalgia they feel for what Wayne represents. Joan Didion refers to Wayne in her essay “John Wayne: A Love Song” as a “mold” into which was poured “the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost.” The insistent score, evoking the hymn’s praise for everlastingly strong arms, yearns for this sort of classic American anti-hero–thoroughly flawed but ultimately dependable and ruthless in his defense of those he holds dear–that Wayne played in much of his later career. If the Coens see the inescapably violent world of No Country for Old Men as an accurate depiction of modern America, perhaps they see men like Rooster Cogburn as the only way in these times to achieve justice and security for those not strong enough to get if for themselves. After all, Mattie, for all of her pluck and wit, would not be able to survive her mission without Rooster’s intervention.
Ultimately, while this movie is not among the top five films of the year or the Coens’ career, it is well worth watching, if for nothing more than the memorable characters and faint, poignant echoes of John Wayne’s greatness.
- Characters: A-
- Cinematography: B
- Directing: B+
- Plot: B
- Performances: A-
- OVERALL: B+