Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Review of True Grit (2010)
There was a mix-up at "The Weekender," so this didn't run. Consider this a WPW exclusive!
One rule regarding remakes is that it's always wise to renovate a rusty original. Case in point, legendary filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have transformed 1969's True Grit into one of this year's masterpieces.
The original western is entertaining but flawed. The plot is bulky. The screenplay announces every intention. Considering that it was released right when mainstream movies were embracing cynicism and antiheroes—The Graduate, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider—True Grit sports the sunny strut of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. John Wayne, winning his lone Oscar as thorny U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, has a grandfatherly rapport with his teenage employer, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), calling her "baby sister." Darby's perky pluck recalls every obnoxious grade school brownnoser; Glen Campbell, as a grinning Texas Ranger assisting the two, has the oily presence of a Lawrence Welk performer.
In the 2010 upgrade, the story remains the same: When her father is fatally shot by his employee on a business trip, young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) is determined to capture the on-the-lam murderer (Josh Brolin). Using a thorough, no-nonsense approach, she learns that Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is the meanest tracker, though not necessarily the best. In his four years of service, he's killed two-dozen men. Cogburn is either drunk, mean-spirited, or both. He should ride alone, but Mattie will do no such thing. They embark on a lengthy search, with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, infinitely better than Campbell) intermittently joining them.
The Coen brothers have trimmed the original film's fat, ditched any obviousness, and erased any trace of sentimentality. And it's awesome. Like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, True Grit is an entertaining story that dazzles you with technical craftsmanship (namely Roger Deakins's cinematography), first-rate acting, and the filmmakers' uncanny ability to sway you with the littlest gestures. Its power and poignancy surprise you. So do the performances. Steinfeld nearly steals the movie by revealing Mattie's sad truth: her adult behavior isn't an adorable affectation; it's a survival mechanism. Bridges—not locked into a persona like Wayne—creates his own indelible, bad-ass (and non-grandfatherly) version of Cogburn.
The newer True Grit is not some gaudy gift for the Facebook generation. Unburdened by a legendary good guy and the need to provide warm and fuzzies, the Coens turn stoic, flawed heroism into cliché-free, cinematic poetry. There's no need for renovation. It's damn near perfect.