Ethan and Joel Cohen reimagine the Charles Portis novel with reverence to the genre and without competing with the predecessor. Nice job.
I liked this True Grit. To my mild surprise, I must admit. (Ouch, poem. Sorry.) Still steaming mad at the Coens for the ending of A Serious Man and never a fan of the western, I walked in prepared to be fond of little except Matt Damon’s performance (really can’t ever go wrong there). I figured that if the Coens didn’t use me as fodder for their own amusement and the genre didn’t grate like nails on a chalkboard, then I’d be happy. Most importantly, it would put me back on speaking terms with the Coens (it’s been a rough row to hoe the past few years, despite their almost ironclad Lifetime Pass for Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Fargo).
Given the inevitable comparison, it’s important to remember that Joel and Ethan Coen give us not a remake of the 1969 classic starring John Wayne, Kim Darby, and Glen Cambell, but rather a second interpretation of Portis’ book. As a song can be utterly reimagined (think Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland and Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole), so goes the retelling of True Grit ~ same structure, same heart, different spirit, fresh result.
The decision to use Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down in the trailer created the space perfectly. True Grit 2010 is serious, reflective, often menacing, and naturalistic. One can feel the chill of the cold air on ones skin, recoil at the obvious reek emanating from Cogburn’s unbathed, whiskey-marinated pores (not to mention his and Ned Pepper’s breath…). The verbal parrying may be amusing, but nothing about the business these folks are discussing is amusing. Whatever one’s business, it is Serious.
The performances hold up well in the new rendition. Jeff Bridges amps up his Crazy Heart role for Cogburn, portraying him just as other characters describe; Matt Damon brings an effective demeanor and characterization to LeBoef; Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper show up ably in their limited screen time; and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld steals the show as Mattie Ross, transforming Mattie from a tomboy (so glad I haven’t heard that word in a million years) into a shrewd, determined young woman hampered in no way by either age or gender.
I can’t say I myself loved True Grit, but this is more for matters of taste than execution. The story comes from the era in which animals are used for the emotional manipulation factor ~ e.g., if an animal is featured personally (so to speak), you can be certain it dies tragically. Such were the days in which real exploration of character didn’t really occur, especially in westerns ~ characters are introduced and set upon a course of action, but there it stops. Action trumps from there, hence the need to use the animal to access true heartfelt emotion (probably a large reason of my aversion to westerns until the time of Silverado - I could go on, but it’s outside the scope of this piece and for another day).
For better or worse, the word that keeps coming to me when I think of True Grit 2010 is “solid”. Not an adjective one might seek, but neither does it indict. If you’re merely a fan of one or more of the cast (like myself) but not the genre, then it might not be enough to enthrall you; if you’re a western or Coen fan, you’ll be satisfied; and if you’re both, you’ll be pleased.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper, True Grit opens in Houston on Wed Dec 22nd; check Fandango for listings.
As published on Examiner.com