True Grit (2010) is the second screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ eponymous novel. This time the film is scripted & directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, and stars Jeff Bridges as the tough frontier lawman, Rooster Cogburn- a role immortalized by the great John Wayne in the 1969 adaptation.
The Coen brothers- Joel & Ethan- are one of the most original and idiosyncratic filmmakers ever to come out of Hollywood. Their distinctive use of quirky characterizations, language, dark humor, music, photography and editing gives a unique style and feel to their movies- which mark them out from the rest of the films made in the Hollywood mainstream. And since they make such artistically out-of-the-box movies, their movies are more successful with film critics, and a very discerning niche audience, rather than a mass audience. So when I heard that they were going to do an adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, “True Grit,” i was expecting them to do a genre-bending take on this classic Western tale, with their trademark cynical, ironic approach to the material. And more so because “True Grit” has already been adapted for the screen once- in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, with none other than John ‘Duke’ Wayne playing the lead role of Marshall Ruben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn; Duke had won an Oscar (his only one) for his portrayal of the drunken, overweight, eye-patch wearing Marshall. That film is now regarded as a classic Western. So the only reason why anybody would attempt to revisit the same material could only be to put a different spin on it. But to my surprise the 2010 version turned out to be a very well-made old-fashioned, Western- made in the mold of classic Westerns from 50s and 60s. Of course, a lot of the Coen Brothers touches are there- the use of quirky language, Roger Deakins’ bleak & naturalistic cinematography, and a lot of stock actors featured in the cast (‘The Dude’ from ‘The Big Lebowski’ plays ‘Duke’). but i was stumped to see how straightforward it was, there’s not a hint of irony in the film’s proceedings; and i thought the subject matter was ripe for mining irony, and if anybody could do it then it would be the Coen Bros. But True Grit harkens back to a more classic form of plot and character-driven storytelling, and in that sense, it succeeds immensely. Ultimately, True Grit is a piece of pure entertainment, completely devoid of cynicism – thrilling, engaging, and funny- to the point that it doesn’t feel like a Coen Bros. film at all. Now this may please the fans of the Western genre, but might disappoint fans of the Coens. Of course, making a traditional Western at a time when Western have all but disappeared from the big screen is in itself a courageous artistic decision. Perhaps, that’s why Coens decided to embark on such a project.
As for the plot of the film: In 1880 Arkansas, 14 year old tough-as- nails cowgirl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) sets out to avenge her father’s murder at the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). While collecting her father’s body, Mattie asks the local sheriff about the search for Chaney. He tells her that Chaney has likely fled with “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang into Indian Territory, where the sheriff has no authority. Determined to track down Chaney on her own, she hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track Chaney and his gang, and bring him back to be hung. The only problem is that Cogburn, who drinks a lot and is too bloated for his saddle, has a reputation for shooting the people he is meant to be arresting, but Mattie believes he has ‘true grit’ and is the man for the job. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is also looking for Chaney in regards to a murder of state Senator in Texas, join up with them for the hunt. While LaBoeuf wants to take Chaney to Texas, because there is a reward for his capture there, Mattie is determined that Chaney will hang for the death of her father- and not for what he did in Texas. She insists on accompanying Cogburn- something he initially objects to. Cogburn takes off with La Boeuf leaving Mattie behind, but Mattie catches up with them and insists on going along. On the way, a verbal feud breaks out between Cogburn and LaBoeuf, and the latter leaves to pursue Chaney on his own. Before catching up with Chaney, Cogburn and Mattie come across other members of the ‘Pepper’ gang- from whom they manage to extract information about the whereabouts of Pepper. But in the ensuing gunfight with Pepper and his men, Peeper manages to escape, while LaBoeuf, who had arrived in their midst chasing Pepper, gets accidentally shot by Cogburn.
Now back together again, The threesome of Cogburn, Mattie and LaBoeuf once again set forth to track down Chaney, but days go by without any trace of Chaney, Pepper and the gang. Believing that their mission has failed, Cogburn and LaBoeuf decides to turn back; but by a twist of fate, Mattie accidentally discovers Chaney while she’s drawing water from the stream. She shoots and wounds Chaney, but could not finish him, as her gun misfires. Mattie is captured by Chaney and brought to Pepper and his gang. Holding her as hostage, Pepper demands safe passage from Cogburn- which the latter grants. Pepper leaves Chaney behind to guard Mattie and takes off with his men, promising that he will return with a fresh horse for Chaney. But once they are gone, a cowardly Chaney, thinking that Pepper has abandoned him, tries to kill Mattie. LaBoeuf, having rendezvoused with Cogburn, arrives and knocks Chaney unconscious, while Cogburn intercepts the fleeing ‘Pepper’ gang in a four-to-one standoff. In the ensuing horseback-gunfight, Cogburn kills Pepper’s gang members, but Pepper manages to shoot Cogburn’s horse down. But before Pepper could finish off Cogburn, LaBoeuf shoots Pepper from 400 yards with his Sharps rifle. But the threesome’s ordeal isn’t over yet, as Chaney regains consciousness and attacks and wounds LaBoeuf. In the ensuing melee, Mattie manages to shoot and kill Chaney, but she falls into a pit where she’s bitten by a rattlesnake. Cogburn arrives and rescues Mattie. Promising to send help for LaBoeuf, Cogburn hurriedly rides away with Mattie to get her to a doctor. After their horse collapses from exhaustion, Cogburn carries a delirious Mattie on foot to reach help. Mattie’s arm is ultimately amputated, and although Cogburn stays with her until she is out of danger, he is gone by the time she regains consciousness. She never sees Cogburn or Lebouf in her life again.
The 2010 version pretty much follows the same plot as the 1969 version, and sometimes some of the scenes may appear to be shot-by-shot remake of the earlier film: the scene where Mattie crosses the river on her own and get spanked by LaBoeuf, the scene where Mattie argues with the horse trader, and the shootout at the ‘Pepper gang dugout’ are pretty much the same, except in the case of the last one the action has been shifted from day to night. But where this version differs from the earlier one is in the perspective from which the story is told. The 1969 film was mainly designed as a star-vehicle for John Wayne, and it follows a third person narrative, while here the film is told from the perspective of a middle-aged Mattie looking back at the events that happened 25 years ago. This point is emphasized by adding a voice over of Mattie’s character, as well as an ‘epilogue’ in which we find the Forty-year old, handicapped, unmarried Mattie travelling to visit Cogburn at the latter’s invitation; Cogburn is now reduced to appearing in a ‘Wild West Show’ that’s touring the modern towns and cities; but their meeting never takes place because Cogburn dies three days before Mattie arrives. The film ends with Mattie bringing Cogburn’s body back with her and burying him in her family cemetery. This framing device gives the film a melancholic tone tinged with nostalgia, as opposed to the 1969 version, which is a rousing entertainer with an upbeat ending where Mattie and Cogburn are happily reunited. This tonal shift from the original to the remake is reflected in every aspect of this film. The John Wayne film had the classic, big, sweeping score by Elmer Bernstein that many westerns of the day had, while, Carter Burwell here gives yet another of his subdued, melancholic score- except for Cogburn’s charge at the end, which has appropriately triumphant music. The 1969 film was set in spring, with the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard capturing the majestic Colorado landscape in all its yellow & green picture-book glory. This version is set in winter, and Roger Deakins photography of the New Mexican & Texan landscape washes out any hint of vivid color for a dark monochrome color palette in the exteriors; and a naturalistic camerawork that authentically replicates the lighting effects of candles and kerosene lamps in the interiors. The screenplay, with its distinct use of words lifted right out of the novel, is more authentic to the time period in which the film is set. The same goes for the costuming and set designing as well- all performed by regular Coen Bros. collaborators.
As for the performances, one of the great pleasures is seeing Jeff Bridges- “The Dude” Lebowski himself- making his triumphant return in a Coen brothers film. Of course, filling the very large shoes of John ‘Duke’ Wayne is a mission impossible for any actor, but ‘the Dude’ refrains from copying the ‘Duke’ and goes for a different interpretation of the character. Duke had won an Oscar for his performance in that film, though I don’t consider it Duke’s best screen performance- that maybe in “Red River” or “The Searchers.”- nonetheless, it’s still an iconic John Wayne role. Bridges, who was Oscar nominated for his performance in this film, brings his own unique style and sensibilities to the role, combining his drunken goofiness with the demeanor of a serious and very skilled hunter and lawman. While Duke, the ultimate movie superstar, gave a ‘star’ performance which more or less parodied his larger-than-life, tough-guy, Western Icon image, Bridges approaches the character from the vantage point of a ‘Character actor’ playing a fully rounded character with all its strengths and weaknesses. Since the earlier version was specifically created for Duke, some of the nastiness of the character was watered down, but Bridges goes all out in playing Cogburn as the lying, stealing, killing mean SOB afflicted with sloth, obesity and drunkenness. The courtroom scene that introduces Cogburn is one of the funniest in how it slowly reveals the real nature of this heroic Marshal- someone who kills and then steals from his victims. It is a wonderful performance playing to all of Bridges’ best abilities as an actor, and it is just a joy to watch. One problem I had with this performance is that sometime Bridges gets so much into the unique slang and drunkenness of the character that it’s impossible to understand what he’s saying. Bridges also comes short in the some of those macho, mass-appealing scenes- like the rousing one-to-four climactic gunfight- which looks written specifically for Duke, and only a superstar like John Wayne can pull off with aplomb.
Also playing to his best qualities is Matt Damon- who is a big improvement on Glen Campbell- who played the same role in the 1969 version- and delivers one of the loosest and most fun performances of his career as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, even though he looks (and behaves) too modern to be an 1880s Texas ranger. Damon is not the easiest actor to picture astride a horse in a ‘Western’ setting. But the standout performance is from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who beat out 15,000 other girls for the role of Mattie. Whether its getting the authentic language right, or talking down and holding her own against veterans like Bridges and Damon, she’s simply great. Another Coen Bros. regular, Josh Brolin, gives an unexpectedly amusing performance as the treacherous and cowardly Tom Chaney. Chaney has been built up so much throughout the course of the film that when Brolin finally arrives, we are stupefied to see this sniveling, cursing coward- a rare trademark Coen Bros. moment in the film. Other times, the film proceeds without much surprises, except for the odd bits where the quirky visual of a ‘bear riding a horse’ turns out to be a ‘medicine man,’ or the moment where Cogburn and Mattie discovers a corpse tied high up on a tree. A hilarious shooting contest involving ‘corn’ that breaks out between Cogburn and La Boeuf in the middle of the wilderness is also quite hilarious.
Coens had played around with ‘Western’ elements in their films before; most importantly in their Oscar winning “No Country for old Men,” but that was more modern and subversive in nature. Here everything from the classic widescreen compositions to the staging of the action scenes makes it very obvious that they have kept much of their eccentricities in check to deliver a pure genre film for the first time in their career. And they were richly rewarded for that as well. The film not only turned out to be the biggest box office hit in their career, but also one of the highest grossing Westerns of all time- taking in more than $250 million worldwide. The film was also nominated for ten Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. The film may not have won any Oscars, but the Coen Bros more than succeeded in their mission: in remaking (or reimagining) a Classic John Wayne Western into a traditional Western that appeals to a Twenty-first century audience, they accomplished the near-impossible.