Remake of True Grit finds its Voice in the Mouth of a Precocious Adolescent ...
And also in the whiskey tainted growl of a conflicted, aging lawman, who has more than enough backbone to overcome all other possible shortcomings.
Ethan and Joel Coen's remake of the 1968 Charles Portis novel is remarkable in its attention to the detail of the times, and the humor inherent within the serendipitous circumstance of characters played out in and about the Ozark Mountains of post-Civil War Arkansas. The rugged terrain was as much a part of the story as the written word, and the written word was certainly essential in projecting the mood of these magic moments strung together to tale this tale.
The film, True Grit, begins as Mattie Ross departs the train at the last stop of the of the line in Fort Smith, Arkansas to retrieve the body of her slain father, Frank Ross, who has been killed by his drunk hired hand Tom Chaney. Mattie Ross, played by virtual newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, loved her father dearly and for an adolescent possessed a profound sense of right and wrong, and she was determined to right this wrong come hell or hail stones. Young Actor Steinfeld sold her role with great conviction, and one completely understood her sense of urgency to complete her appointed task come life or limb.
The integral component to her success was to hire the toughest, meanest son of a biscuit eater in northwest Arkansas. His name was Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn. He was a US Marshall and fully qualified for the task that lay ahead; if Mattie could talk him into the job. Mattie hears that Marshal Cogburn is a cruel murderous man, and therefore, she surmises that he has what she refers to as "true grit." She is instantly drawn to the man as if he replaces the father figure, who is now expired by the hand of a drunken hired hand, and he would be avenged.
As characteristic as Jeff Bridges' personification of the gruff man hunter was to the success of this character driven film, The Coen Brothers' staging of the initial scenes that introduced us to the film's characters set the mood for the audience's perception of the balance of the film.
The first scene that we meet Mattie, when she is done haggling, with great success, with the local horse trader, Colonel G. Stonehill, played by Dakin Matthews, they discussed the merit of Rooster Cogburn's grit:
Colonel G. Stonehill: "Do you entertain plans of ever leaving this city?"
Mattie Ross: "Yes, I'm off early tomorrow morning for the Indian nation. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and I are going after the murderer, Tom Chaney."
Colonel G. Stonehill: "Cogburn. How did you light on that greasy vagabond?"
Mattie Ross: "They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit."
Collonel G. Stonehill: "Well, I suppose he has that. He's a notorious thumper. He's not a man I would care to share a bed with."
Mattie Ross: "Nor would I."
As well suited as Actor Steinfeld was suited to play Mattie, Jeff Bridges was half again better suited to play the role that won John Wayne his one Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the original film produced in 1969. Jeff Bridges nailed the whiskey swilling roll-your-own, pistol blazing US Marshall, who rode with William Clark Quantrill from Missouri to Kansas in the American Civil War. Actor Bridges owned the role of Rooster Cogburn, as if the role was written to match his intrinsic mannerisms and gravelly voice.
His shared scenes with the willful Mattie, played by Actor Steinfeld, gave the film an instant allure that drew me deep into the film, which is a place that makes every good scene better, and every average scene more than tolerable. The Coen Brother's "True Grit" was better than that film. It is the film that makes that makes the transition to the one that will be remembered, and enjoyed by future generations of Western aficionados.
Beyond the character development of Mattie and Rooster, the horse-trading Colonel Stonehill, formerly played by Strother Martin in the first True Grit, the film's near-pretentious dialogue actually worked well to tell the story of the unlikely alliance of tenacious adolescent and the murderous, but loyal Marshal. In the first film, the dialogue appeared stilted, and just wasn't sold well by the actors that were miscast at best.
Obviously John Wayne, as the original Rooster, was a proper choice, but the essential role of Mattie was played Kim Darby, and was a terrible choice. The role of Texas Ranger La Boeuf, who was Rooster Cogburn's indispensable foil, was played by Country Music Singer Glen Campbell. Glen Campbell was very popular at the time, and a native of Arkansas, but was no actor, whose performance as the young Texas Ranger was forgettable, except to remember that it was very bad ... and regrettable.
Matt Damon, who is a fine enough actor to pull off the role of La Boeuf with great aplomb, suffered no diminishment in his scenes with the venerable Jeff Bridges or the precocious Haliee Steinfeld. Matt Damon, as the spurs dangling, buckskin clad La Boeuf sitting in Mattie's archaic hotel room, as she awakened nestled in her Jenny Lind Bed, went like this:
LaBoeuf: "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin', I gave some thought to stealin' a kiss ... though you are very young, and sick ... and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt."
Mattie Ross: "One would be just as unpleasant as the other."
While traveling through the Choctaw Nation searching for the Murderous Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin, Mattie and the Marshal met: a man dressed in a black bear shroud, who purported to be a trader and a man of medicine, they meet two desperados in a mountain cabin, and eventually they run into by chance Lucky Ned Pepper's gang of desperados. Lucky Ned Pepper is played by the capable character actor Barry Pepper, who, in his small role, did as well as a young, and virtually unknown, Robert Duvall did in 1969, when he portrayed Ned Pepper.
It is said that Jeff Bridges agreed to play the grizzled man of much drink and violence if the Coen Brothers would stick more to the original Charles Portis novel, which they did, making this amuch better version of the original John Wayne vehicle. This film successfully cast its audience into a transfixed state of believability and was humorous in substance when it need to be and downright entertaining as a captivating story told in the rich textures of well placed dialogue and expert characterizations. I felt such a part of the story, by empathy, when the one-eyed marshal imbibed in his rock-gut whiskey, I took a pull from my own flask of the oak flavored Jack Daniels and I too understood a small piece of Rooster Cogburn's world.
The Jack Daniels notwithstanding, Ethan and Joel Coen have an outstanding talent of drawing the audience into the story and making it real and most memorable. Personally, I believe they are a party to the best filmmakers living today. Many of their films are well on their way to becoming to classics: Their Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, the cult classic, The Big Lebowski, and now True Grit. I enjoyed these films very much. After True Grit, I intend to continue enjoying these films built on character development, story and somewhat sophisticated humor.
Maybe; however, I'll leave the flask at home when I catch the Coen Brothers' next flick at the theater.
Rated PG-13. Released in theaters December 10, 2010. 110 minutes of runtime.