In a world that's seemingly full of remakes, I'll fully admit to having gone on rants about the need for originality and the death of creativity in Hollywood. I refused to see Let Me In and I'm picking out my spot on the fence for the David Fincher adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mostly because they're unnecessary, since neither of their originals are more than 5 years old. This notion of "remake" and "reboot" is an obsession, almost as much as the sequel obsession of modern cinema, and I find it irksome; and now here come the Coen Brothers to shred all of my resolve.
If you understand the Coen Brothers, I would say it's almost impossible not to be fans of at least most of their work. After all, these are the guys behind Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and their crowned Best Picture, No Country For Old Men. They're one of the few cinematic teams who make big movies that feel intensely intimate and little movies that seem to have universal appeal. They're the rare independent crossovers who still seem to have complete creative control while luring the audience in with their combination of humor, wit, ensemble casts and just enough blood to keep you on your toes. All that being said, in a way, True Grit feels like the movie that the Coen Brothers have been meaning to make for quite a while, a kind of odd combination of several of their previous works the manages to work together to inspire the most original remake I can possibly think of.
Based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (you'll definitely want to click on the link to see the original book cover), True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross (relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old (going on 30), who is out for vengeance against the man who killed her father. To help her on her journey she seeks the aid of a curmudgeonly U.S. Marshal, Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (this time played by Jeff Bridges) and in the bargain gets a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Together these three ride off into the great unknown Western territory to make their peace and settle their scores.
Now I may be a completely inadequate reviewer of this film for several reasons. I have never read the book and I have never seen the original, although I do know that it's the only role John Wayne ever won an Oscar for. In short, I'll be of no help if you're looking for a comparison. What I can tell you is that, despite it's unfortunate title of remake, anyone who goes in to see this will most likely be surprised at just how much the Coen Brothers have made it their very own.
Although the expansive western landscape and vengeance theme make this, in a way, a companion piece to No Country For Old Men (not to mention the basis of the novel as the start point), True Grit also manages to be distinctly its own. As with all of their movies, Joel and Ethan Coen have created such a unique and stylized atmosphere, right down to the proper grammar of the dialogue, and such defined characters, that it's difficult not to become engrossed in the story. There are shots, beautifully framed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, a Coen Brothers veteran, that should seem vastly expansive, so expansive that the audience should no longer feel a part of it, and yet, the distance is never too great. The script is so specifically period, making a point to do without contractions and modern references that it should seem like something almost other worldly, but perhaps that driving sense of getting even in all of us is what keeps this story so modern. You're almost convinced you might very well be watching an updated John Ford, that is until a knife is drawn, fingers are chopped off and a man is shot in the head, all in the span of about 30 seconds, or maybe it's the part where a man shows up on horseback wearing a bear jacket, but that's when you know the Coen Brothers are in charge. It's these subtle nuances, moments of unexpectedness, that make a Coen Brothers film so compulsively watchable, and there is no short supply of examples here. The script is filled with fantastically understated humor, both in language and in scene, that distinguishes it clearly from No Country and feels more like Fargo, which is both surprising and welcome.
To me, even more than his Oscar-winning role in last year's Crazy Heart, Rooster Cogburn is the role that Jeff Bridges was born to play. He's foul and dirty, he's impulsive and headstrong, he shoots first and asks questions later, and most importantly he has true grit, and true heart. It's a flashier role than Damon's somewhat bumbling Texas Ranger, but Bridges does make it seem effortless. Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie is a standout, going toe to toe with both Bridges and Damon, as headstrong as Cogburn, as determined as LaBoeuf, she's the glue that holds this work together and Steinfeld delivers.
While No Country felt something close to "sprawling", this movie never gets that large. It gets to the point and it gets there quickly, but it never feels rushed. Ultimately it's told in the very best way with the Coen Brothers realizing that this is not necessarily their story to tell, it's Mattie's, but it is their own story to show, and they do it very, very well.
5 out of 5