True Grit ****
Film remakes tend to have a bad reputation. Often viewed as a shameless cash in on the good name of great movies and an indication that Hollywood is all out of original ideas, the mere mention of remaking a beloved classic film will generally be considered sacrilege by the original film’s devoted fans, sometimes out of the belief that a shoddy remake might tarnish the reputation and integrity of the film it is a remake of. So, it’s entirely understandable that many have been extremely apprehensive over True Grit, a remake – or perhaps reimagining, it is somewhat difficult to tell which these days – of the 1969 western of the same name directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne in the leading role.
Such apprehension, as it turns out, was all for nought, however, as this new version isn’t some cheap knock off made to cash in on the first film’s name – as much a classic as it is, I’m not sure how established its name is anyway – but rather a respectful reinterpretation written and directed by none other than the Coen Brothers, whose last film, No Country For Old Men – a sort of modern day western and a major departure from the kind of films that the Coens had been known for making in the past – received 8 nominations and won 4 awards at the 2008 Academy Awards. One thing that the Coen Brothers have made clear is that this film is actually intended rather as a more faithful adaptation of the 1968 novel of the same name that the original film was based on than as an outright remake of the film itself (putting this film into the same category of remake as 2005’s War of the Worlds and Charlie and the Charlie Factory, both of which were much closer to their original literary inspirations than the original films based on the books) and this distinction alone gives the film an edge that makes it more than just another remake. Concerns regarding the film’s quality should also have been allayed by now with the incredible word of mouth coming from the states, where the film received its release over the Christmas period at the end of last year. With a 95% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes and a general critical consensus that this remake is every bit as brilliant as the 1969 original film, the film has also proven to a be a box office juggernaut, having grossed $160 million to date – giving Jeff Bridges his second straight blockbuster hit there, after Tron Legacy also proved to be a very big hit and also awarding the Coen Brothers their first ever blockbuster hit – something that suggests that not only do critics like the film but audiences do too. For a western being released in the 21st century, such a performance is virtually unprecedented and the fact that it has done so well really shows that people over there consider it to be a quality film. Not only that but the film has outdone No Country For Old Men in terms of Oscar nominations, having earned itself ten nominations at this year’s Academy Awards. Is True Grit everything it is being made out to be then? Largely yes but not quite.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) is a strong willed and spirited 14-year farm girl whose father has been murdered by a cold blooded and infamous killer named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). With the law seemingly not interested in catching the killer and Mattie desperate to see the man responsible hanged for his crime, she hires the grizzled but well seasoned Marshall Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt him down. Only a man with “true grit” can bring a lawless man like Chaney to justice and, while Cogburn may be a slave to the bottle, he has killed many outlaws before and seems to be the right man for the job. Joined by a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who wants to capture Chaney for his own purposes, Mattie and Cogburn begin to follow Chaney’s trail but, once they are on the road, the Marshall’s destructive behaviour begins to test her faith and when they finally catch up with Chaney and her very life is threatened, Mattie realises that if she is to enact her vengeance and survive she must show that she herself has “true grit”.
I must confess that I am not really into westerns but even I must admit that True Grit is a very well made piece of cinema that is largely deserving of the good word of mouth and awards attention that has been bestowed upon it, even though, just like with No Country For Old Men, don’t think it is quite as good as it is being made out to be and it is only really from a technical standpoint that I hold a great deal of appreciation for it. As a big admirer of the Coen Brother’s earlier films (among them Raizing Arizona, The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty) and the particular style that was present in them, their whole new style that many are raving about is one that I am not so keen on, the charm and wit of their earlier films sadly being less evident in True Grit. That said, though, as a western and as a film that is much more rough around the edges than its 1969 namesake, there are plenty of positive things that can be said about it. For starters, the Coens have crafted what is probably one of the most detailed and authentic representations of the Wild West in a long time with considerable attention to detail in virtually every aspect of the film and terrific production values being noticeable all over. All the locations and sets are incredibly detailed and authentic in their appearance and everything we see on screen seems true to the period, from the buildings and trains that feature to the guns that are shot, the clothes and shoes that are worn and the hairstyles. Not only that but the film also sounds authentic, the musical accompaniment – what there is of it, many scenes having none whatsoever – being done using the kind of musical tones that would likely have been heard for real in the period within which the film is set, something which adds an extra layer of authenticity, and every single cast member doing a completely convincing period accent. With dialogue that sounds authentic and delivers at the Coens’ usual standards of excellence as well as multilayered characters that are both well written and quite thoroughly developed, the actors really have some very good material to work with and everyone here is excellent, right down to the supporting actors who only appear in individual scenes. Combining toughness and grumpiness with tenderness and fragility, a virtually unrecognisable (due to his character’s eye patch and gruff appearance) Jeff Bridges displays true grit in his performance, really bringing the character to life and making the role his own, rather than imitating John Wayne’s performance in the original film. He perfectly blends his character’s serious attitude with a wicked sense of humour and his interactions with his co-stars, in particular Hailee Steinfield, are brilliantly handled, the unusual dynamic that develops between their characters really working well. Steinfield herself also shows true grit, her performance being an incredibly mature one, the 14 year old displaying the strength, will and spirit of a woman twice her age. Showing childlike emotion when called for but also being very tough and grown up in her portrayal of Mattie, she acts as an equal alongside her adult male co-stars and shows that she is definitely an actress to look out for in the future. Playing a character who has a nasty streak but who deep down is decent and honourable, Matt Damon (also virtually unrecognisable due to his character’s moustache) is also excellent and he really keeps us guessing about his character and what his agenda may be. As the film’s primary antagonist, Josh Brolin (redeeming himself after the failure of last year’s supernatural western Jonah Hex) also performs superbly in the few scenes that he is on screen for, his eyes and voice conveying a sense of pure evil and Barry Pepper, playing the role of Lucky Ned Pepper, also proves to be suitably threatening. Menace is not all this film delivers though, as, while this is far from a traditional Coen Brothers movie, there is some of their trademark humour present, just only in very small doses. Coming mainly in the form of dialogue, witty retorts and comebacks, the humour goes some way to lighten the mood of the film a bit but never takes over from the more serious aspects. From a technical standpoint, the film delivers some superb visuals, with excellent composition and cinematography that is beautiful and at times even quite magical – the opening shot enladened with a golden hue and a later shot of the snow falling are good examples of this. Beautiful all natural landscapes, such as deserts, woodlands, valleys, mountains and snow covered landscapes are wonderfully captured and the scale of them gives a truly epic sense of how big the Wild West really was. The Coens also deliver several shootout sequences that will make you jump out of your seat, the sound of shots firing being emphasised as to heighten the impact. And worry not about the fact that the film was made to achieve an American PG-13 rating (although it’s a 15 here in the UK) as nothing here feels toned down for the purposes of achieving a lower rating. While the film is practically flawless technically, however, I did not find it to be perfect. While not everyone will agree with me (and some will probably think the exact opposite) I found the film to be far too slow paced and at times uneventful, something particularly evident in scenes that see the characters holding conversations while they ride their horses. The slow pace prevented me from being fully engaged in the overall experience of the film. Additionally, musical accompaniment only comes into play at dramatic moments and, while some may view this as a strength, I viewed it as a major flaw. A bit more musical accompaniment would have been greatly beneficial to many scenes and would likely have helped with the pacing issues somewhat. Such flaws (which some might actually view as strengths) are the same that were present in No Country For Old Men and for me they hold both films far back from being perfect. Nonetheless, this still manages to be the best, albeit only western in quite some time. A film I may not consider to be perfect but others no doubt will, True Grit is a technically very good film that, well, shows “true grit”.
Review by Robert Mann BA Hons)