Ever wondered why people keep calling some films remakes when they’re not? For example, the Coen Brothers version of True Grit is not a remake of the John Wayne film from 1969. Yes they share the same story and characters but they’re both based on the same book and so they are adaptations of that book. They share the core aspects of plot, character and setting but the way they play out is full of differences. A film is only a remake if it is A) based on a film that started life as a film and nothing else (the US remake of Godzilla for example) or B) is a near carbon copy of the a film based on a book (For example the 1998 version of Psycho). Why do I make a point of this? Because the Coen’s adaptation of True Grit is a film to be judged on it’s own merits rather than be compared to the much lighter John Wayne movie. And with that, judge it I shall…
Shall I start with a little hyperbole? I think I shall. True Grit is nearly the best film the Coen Brothers have ever made. In my opinion it is only nudged out by The Big Lebowski. It should be noted that of the few films of theirs I’ve not seen Miller’s Crossing is one of them. I will be amending that soon (it is down for a Blu-ray release at the end of August). This film is a masterclass in storytelling, cinematography and character. As far as the storytelling and character goes a lot of that can be attributed for the original novel which is considered one of the greatest American novels of all time.
True Grit tells the story of one Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) who’s father was recently murdered by a coward named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for a horse and 2 pieces of gold. Mattie is an incredibly intelligent and headstrong girl who takes in unto herself to track down her fathers killer and see that he be brought to justice. Because of the times the story is set within the murder of one man of little importance isn’t the highest concern of the local law enforcement so Mattie, funded with money earned through a terrifying (at least for her “victim”) display of negotiation skills, sets out to hire a man of true grit to help her hunt down Chaney. She is informed of a ruthless US Marshall by the name of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (The Dude) and sets out to employ him for her mission. They are joined by a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and set off on their journey into the wilderness to find Chaney and his gang.
The tone of this film manages to switch about with a deft display of skill from the Coens. It can be dramatic, funny and violent all in the space of a few minutes and without feeling like a shift in tone has taken place. Those three elements are what the Coens have always excelled at and I honestly couldn’t imagine any other directors pulling this film off as well as they have. The nuance in all the characters, and their actors portrayals, demonstrate just how well our heroes were written to begin with. They’re full of small details and partake in small moments of truly human observations that will have you chuckling at their foibles and feeling every ounce of the tension they do. For example in one scene Mattie and Rooster spot a man hung from a tree high up. They stand and stare at the hung man, Rooster asks Mattie if that is Chaney to which Mattie replies “It is hard to tell from the soles of his feet”. Rooster then insists that she climbs the tree to get a closer look, a job he can’t do on account of being “too old and too fat”. Mattie climbs the very tall tree and we feel her tension as she grips on for her life, she tells Rooster that the man is not Chaney and is told to cut him down in case Rooster knows who he is. She struggles further up the tree and cuts the rope. The man plummets to the ground at Roosters feet. “I do not know this man”, says Rooster. In one sequence we have had light humour, tension and another brief moment of simple humour all of which feel completely in key with the film as a whole and demonstrate just how well the Coens can control a scene.
Mattie’s true journey in this film is that of the search for a father figure. The recently deceased father appears to have worked away from home a lot and her mother is either tied up looking after her siblings or inebriated. Mattie has clearly had to raise herself. She is presented with two father figures in the form of the brave but very very drunk Rooster and the showy, wannabie authoritarian LaBoeuf. The latter is interesting for two reasons. One, he appears to be all show and not a particularly good lawman having failed multiple times to catch Chaney. Secondly he appears to get off on little girls, suggesting that he planned to steal a kiss from Mattie whilst she was asleep and getting a little too into spanking her in a later scene. He is either a man who is used to just taking what he wants or feels as though he should be able to because he’s all cowboyed up with his jangly spurs. Neither are a suitable father figure for Mattie but it is clear from early on that she’d probably be fine without one. Matt Damon’s shift on vocal performance after biting his tongue should be commended too. Usually when something like that happens in a film (Ichi The Killer for example) the change in voice is soon forgotten about. He keeps it up for the rest of the film.
Performances are strong throughout with most characters drawing from the Coen Brother bucket of novelty accents. None are more novelty than Roosters. Not only is his accent thick, his vocal chords are broken down from years of smoking and alcohol abuse and as a result of the latter he has one hell of a drawl. Expect to only fully understand about 60% of what he says. Special note should go to Hailee Steinfield who, in her first leading movie role, has managed to out act pretty much every actress in Hollywood over the last year. It’s a little insulting that she was politicked into a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars this year when she was clearly the leading lady of the film. The Oscars are becoming a joke these days I swear.
There is genuinely very little I can think of to fault this film. A few minor effects shots for gun shots squibs and a few background plates near the end as Rooster races for the nearest town with Mattie look a little low budget. That’s honestly all I can think of. Honestly one of the best films I’ve seen (made recently seeing as I watched LA Confidential a few weeks back) in a long time. Very few films these days have character arcs that play out as well as the story being told on screen. Every character has some sort of arc and there’s nothing at the end of this that leaves you wondering what they did next. I’ve still not seen every film that was nominated for Best Picture this year but so far, of the ones I have seen, this is at the top of my personal list. I may even go as far to place this in amongst some of the greatest films of all time. It’s certainly up there with the likes of Chinatown, LA Confidential, Casablanca and Alien. Highly recommended.
50th Movie review coming soon! What will the film I choose for this milestone? Obviously I should choose something of truly a remarkable level of greatness. That is to say.. I should.