Photos courtesy of Parmount Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

How much grit does it take to remake perhaps John Wayne’s most memorable film without The Duke?

But then Joel and Ethan Coen, usually termed together as The Coen Brothers, are maybe the most daring filmmakers of their generation. They’ve practically defined their careers by filming the unexpected. Although it was only a matter of time before the Coen Brothers made a western, who could have expected it would have been this remake?

Their decision, as well as its end result, proves just how fearless and masterful the brothers are. Look closely at their resume, and one could argue that the Coens have always been students of film genre. For example, their comedies like Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy embed elements of the best screwball comedies à la the Marx Brothers, while Miller’s Crossing pays homage to traditional mobster movies. Even Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men update pulp noir films.

Their True Grit stands out because it is so faithful to both the novel and the film that preceded it, yet their version is distinctly its own vision, with every moment crafted as if from scratch.

Most of the success of the film is due to a subtle point of view shift. The 1969 film, for better and worse, is dominated by Wayne, who won the best actor Academy Award for his role as “Rooster” Cogburn, the fat, one-eyed marshal who helps 14- year-old Mattie Ross catch the man who killed her father. Wayne practically chews the scenery and steals the thunder from an intrepid Kim Darby playing Mattie. But the Coens instead keep the focus on Mattie, played by the quick-tongued Hailee Steinfeld. The Coens transform Steinfeld into a force of nature, as Mattie aggressively seeks to get her way, and usually does, on every occasion. Where Darby’s Mattie was a bit of a know-it-all with gumption, Steinfeld’s Mattie is tenacious to the point of overwhelming all.

In 1969’s True Grit it always felt as if Wayne were placating a stubborn child, but now in 2011 Mattie Ross is in full command, clearly dominating those impeding her progress.

The Coen Brothers even frame the film around Mattie, beginning and ending with her elegant yet frigid voiceover. Like the 1968 novel, this is clearly the tale of her grit, and how the events of the film help to shape her into womanhood. Rooster Cogburn still occupies the centerpiece of Mattie’s story, but like Mattie, he isn’t so much a fully realized character as he is an archetype. He’s notably portrayed this time around by Jeff Bridges, reuniting with the Coens from his days as the Dude in The Big Lebowski.

Bridges is a good choice for Rooster because he can dominate the screen without dominating Mattie. Unlike Wayne, he doesn’t charm us, and he doesn’t grow into the role of a surrogate father for Mattie. He’s simply the muscle, the blunt instrument hired by a precocious child because the child wants a job done. Their relationship does not grow or evolve because, though they are worlds apart, Mattie and Rooster are equals in manner of authority.

Along for the ride is Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger, a role once occupied by Glenn Campbell. Damon plays a dandy with a pistol, a man who likes to talk too much of his trade. And talking plays a big role in this remake. Taking a cue from the antiquated delivery from Oh Brother Where Art Thou, the dialogue out of Damon’s mouth, along with Mattie’s, is nearly a physical entity. You can almost reach out and touch these era-entrenched sentences. That is, all but Bridges’, as he delivers most of his lines in a raspy slur.

Yet it’s Rooster’s slur that helps make this remake more authentic. This True Grit makes the 1969 version feel overly manicured. No longer are the leads clean-shaven and dressed for a square dance. Instead they’re dirty and dangerous, which paves the way for a much more meaningful ending, one in which the characters feel loss and consequences.

The Coen Brothers have brought back the truth to the grit for all involved in the production. It’s certainly a grittier world for a 14-year-old girl to enter, and the final product feels truer.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011