Remaking a John Wayne film is a bona fide ballsy move. The man is an American legend and they certainly broke the mold after they made him. I don’t care who you are, the idea of trying to recast any role made famous by John Wayne (not that he was the greatest actor) is an idea that would make most filmmakers shy away; they even named toilet paper after him for crying out loud.* Well if you want someone to fill the shoes of The Duke, you really can’t go wrong with “The Dude” and in the end it proved a gamble that paid off.
The more films the Coen Brothers make, the more artistic vision they bring to the world. Seemingly boring stories on paper are brought to life with such vivid and imaginative detail. What is perhaps most consistent in any of their films is this sort of fairy tale premise that at times feels like a dream. The characters seem mythical and yet still very believable. While I don’t like all the Coen films, I appreciate each one’s dynamic nature and inherent creativity even if it isn’t for me. Still when there’s one that appeals to me, I really really like it. Case in Point:
True Grit tells the story of young Mattie Ross (played by the astounding Hailee Steinfeld) seeking a bounty hunter to bring in the man who shot her father and a recommendation leads her to one Ruben Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges). “Rooster” is a gruff, crass but oddly likable and sincere lawman. Now despite the Marshall’s cavalier nature, no one has a better track record of bringing in a bounty (ethical or unethical though his ways may be). I have to give a lot of credit to Bridges (still hot off last year’s Oscar win) for really making Rooster his own in a way that didn’t even try to copy Wayne’s performance. Rooster is very reluctant to take the job and even more adamant about not working for a kid. Yet her perseverance and sizable reward win him over and he accepts. Along the way they’re joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and the three set out to bring in the murderous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
From the beginning, the Coen’s hit us with their razor sharp dialog, purposefully slow pace and rather epic looking vistas and beautifully framed wide angle shots. You can get the feeling that this is what Westerns probably were like back in the days of CinemaScope. The entire hunt plays out like an old West take on the Wizard of OZ replete with colorful (albeit grungy) characters and a look at a world Mattie has never experienced.
That’s also what makes a Coen Brothers movie. You will never ever ever meet anyone even close to the types of characters existent in their movies…and True Grit is no exception. Don’t believe me? Have you ever met a child who spoke as eloquently, confidently and craftily as Mattie? I sure haven’t. You ever happen across anyone of their other characters like Harry Pfarrer, Marge Gunderson, Walter Sobchak or Ed Tom Bell? Didn’t think so either. Further the Coens make for characters that have such distinctive qualities they are as memorable and yet about as different as Scarlett O’Hara and Princess Leia.
It’s tough for me to classify this as a “buddy flick”, a road trip movie or even a pure revenge tale. Really it’s a slower paced adventure film that does in some way incorporate the superlatives I try avoid labeling it as. What makes the movie work are the careful steps it takes to establish the characters for who they are and what they add to the story. Mattie wants justice that’s obvious but she’s not some young stubborn “kid” either. Rooster is, reluctantly, looking for a paycheck and this bounty seems within his means. Though rough around the edges he still believes in the justice and the law. LeBoeuf wants to be part of something. He appears a scrounger who wants to ride on Rooter’s coattails he’s got deep loyalties. Tom Chaney we find is less of a hardened criminal but more of an ignorant thug amidst the company of slightly more dangerous men (including Barry Pepper doing his best Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen).
You throw in the befuddled stable master, a bizarre mountain medicine man and others and the story becomes well rounded and guaranteed to be engaging to the end. Some humor, danger and action are all added in appropriate doses (that surprisingly don’t get spoiled by the trailers) adding to the story which do not only the original True Grit but Westerns as a whole proud.
The Coens have done it again but this effort warrants two feather in their cap, one for the film itself but there’s the added bonus of creating a remake that really out does the original (did you expect any less from them?). They’ve taken a pretty simple story, give it many layers and it ultimately makes the ride all the more compelling. Focusing on the story and filling it with smart writing and talented actors to bring it to life really is their strong suit. Although it sure seems like I am having trouble coming up with something deeper. Yet that’s kind of what a Coen Brothers film is…like trying to tell someone about a dream you had. Just like a dream, the 110 minutes seems to pass in an instant. Moreover it all ends to little fanfare as abruptly an alarm clock would wake you up but you still remember the adventure was magical. Eh, that’s the best I’ve got but I really recommend you see this for yourself.
*“John Wayne toilet paper…It’s rough, tough and don’t take no crap off of nobody”