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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: No Country For The Coens’ True Grit Remake

True Grit is undeniably brilliant, but I didn’t love it. It’s a very good movie, better than most things you’ve seen this year and completely worthy of your time and money. But considering the talent in front of the camera and behind it, considering the themes on display and the moments of genius that burst through, it could have been a masterpiece. And it misses the mark.

As True Grit came to a close, I realized its brilliance; the last half hour of the film is where it really cements its central idea and comes alive in a satisfying way. But while I recognized the genius of the Coens’ thesis and a lot of the tonal shifts that they maneuvered through, I don’t know how much I really enjoyed the film on a visceral level.

The Coens’ films are not always the most accessible, but I’ve generally enjoyed their oddball sensibility. They consistently create unique, beautiful, often darkly hilarious stories and worlds. In the best Coen Brothers’ films, you can see their fingerprints all over every frame and in every line of dialogue. With most Coen films, one frame can tell you they directed it.

When I first heard that the Coens were re-making True Grit, I was excited about the prospect of seeing them tackle a real Western. They had made something of a modern Western with No Country for Old Men, but with True Grit they had the chance to give a classic genre their unique stamp.

I’ve only seen the original True Grit once and I don’t remember it all that well, but I had no problem with the Coens re-adapting the Charles Portis novel. With Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin heading up the cast, I could not have been more excited; it was one of my most anticipated movies of the year.

I wonder if the expectations I brought into the film — expectations that came from my knowledge of the filmmakers and what they are capable of — was part of what disappointed me. This is a “Classic Western” where things pretty much unfold in the way you expect them to. We have the reluctant heroes, a spunky kid, and a definable bad guy who doesn’t have a whole lot of complexity or moral ambiguity.

Now I must confess that the “Classic Western” as a genre has never been my favorite. I enjoy the revisionist Westerns like Unforgiven or The Wild Bunch, but the classic “these are the good guys, those are the bad guys and there will be a showdown between them” style of Westerns have always felt overly familiar to me. With films that have very simple and classifiable arcs, it’s all about the uniqueness of the characters and the ways in which they interact. And luckily for the Coen Brothers, they are masters at creating indelible characters. In this case, of course, the characters were already created, but they had the ability to re-fashion them.

True Grit has a simple story: a bad man kills a guy and runs off. The wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter of the murdered man vows vengeance and hires a marshal named Rooster Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf to track down the bad guy. She insists on coming along so that she can ensure the villain’s punishment.

The biggest improvement the Coens have made on the original film was the making the wily, precocious young girl a more dominant character, casting Hailee Steinfeld in the part . Cantankerous ol’ Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) takes a shine to her not because she does anything that makes his heart melt, but because her toughness endears her to him. The relationship between the two of them was one of the best aspects of the film.

Matt Damon gave my favorite performance in the film because LaBoeuf was the only character that really seemed like he was in a Coen Brothers movie. LaBoeuf is odd, but not in an unnecessary way. He’s heroic, but almost in an incidental way. He’s got a strangely strong temper, but it seems to be borne out of caring. Damon’s walk, the way he carries himself, the way he talks, all speak to the arrogance of this character. When he’s not on screen, the film loses its dark sense of humor and becomes far more conventional.

What solidified this film’s brilliance was its last third, when we finally catch up to Josh Brolin’s bad guy. Two things happen here: 1) we realize that Brolin’s character is just kind of a dummy, not some criminal mastermind and 2) the whole movie has been about opening Mattie’s eyes to death. The “death” aspect of the film was present throughout, but I wasn’t aware of that this was the film’s central point until the last half an hour.

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead …

In the beginning of the film, with her father murdered, Mattie learns what it’s like to lose a loved one and she spends a night resolutely sleeping in a coffin in a funeral home. She also witnesses the hanging of three men, seeing death unfold before her eyes. The Rooster Cogburn character, aged as he is, is a representation of death as a decaying force. Throughout the film Mattie sees mercy killings, heroic killings and cold-blooded killings, but the last half hour of the film is about Mattie coming to terms with her own mortality, coming close to death herself.

The coda that ends the film is about her remembering how close she was to dying at 14, and wanting to relive that experience with the man who saved her, risking his own life in the process.

But as brilliantly as the film deals with the theme of death, I had some issues with the overall execution of the story. Aside from a few moments, True Grit is lacking in levity and is almost annoyingly straightforward and mainstream. When the Coens go mainstream, they lose that something special that makes their films sing. Perhaps A Serious Man didn’t draw in the crowds, but at least their genius is on full display there. There are moments in True Grit where I can see the Coens at work, but for the most part it seems like they are holding back.

The film’s pace is a bit of a problem as well, notably in the beginning. It takes more than half an hour for the plot to fully kick in, and the character building that occurs in the opening isn’t worth the time it takes to get the film in gear. I’m not sure what we glean from a five-minute courtroom scene with Rooster Cogburn that we don’t get once he’s in hot pursuit. I don’t know what we learn about Mattie Ross’ tenacity in an extended scene of bartering that we don’t get later on throughout the film.

It’s not that these are bad scenes – in fact the scene with Mattie out-smarting Dakin Matthews’ Col. Stonehill is a gem – but as the expression goes, “sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” It’s a question of what the Coens’ endgame is and since it appears that they wanted to make a fairly straightforward Classic Western, I don’t think those scenes fit with the milieu they are working in.

I wanted more of Mattie and Rooster Cogburn together, to see their overall relationship deepen in the same fashion that the film develops their friendship. I wanted to see more of LaBoeuf for sure because he’s the wild card element in the trio of vengeance-seekers. I wanted a lot more of the things that I haven’t seen explored in this type of film and a lot less of the things I felt I’ve already seen. And Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn is one of those things I feel like I’ve seen before, and not because John Wayne had already played the character.

A lot of people will praise Jeff Bridges for his performance in this, but I found him to be a bit too much of a genre archetype. He’s cranky and old, but he’ll rise to the occasion. It felt too similar to things I’d seen before in other Westerns and Bridges would have been a perfect fit to bring something new to that type of character. Instead, he just uses a strange voice and plays it fairly straight. Bridges is one of the finest actors out there, so he’s certainly engaging, but I found his voice to be distracting, in the same way that Christian Bale’s voice was distracting in The Dark Knight. It’s great to do accents and to give us something we haven’t heard before, but I didn’t buy that voice. As the film went on, I was able to push it aside and admire the way Bridges moves inside the skin of Cogburn, but I felt like this performance wasn’t what it could have been.

Altogether, all this added up to making True Grit an unsatisfying overall experience for me as a whole, however much I appreciated some of the individual elements. It’s too bad it isn’t the film it should have been, with the Coens at the helm.

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