Monday, January 10, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: True Grit

TRUE GRIT-- 4 STARS

Official Website
Internet Movie Database

Lots of movies and stories get remade in Hollywood, sometimes twice and three times over.  That seemingly annual trend causes a great many people to cite that Hollywood doesn't have anymore original ideas.  Well, to digress for a moment, go see Inception and ask that question to yourself again.  When you're done, come back over here. 

Still, the list of remakes is long, too long for detail here, with mostly lukewarm results.  Very few remakes ever live up to the original.  One single modern example is all it takes: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.  While all of them are being made, there's a certain "untouchable" pantheon, if you would, of things you just don't remake.  Not to sound like a product slogan, but some things are "often imitated but never duplicated."

You can never remake Gone With the Wind or The Godfather.  The same goes for Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz (though the success of Broadway's Wicked has Warner Bros. thinking Forrest Gump's Robert Zemeckis can remake the original script and has Disney developing a competing prequel project with Robert Downey, Jr. and Spider-Man director Sam Raimi attached).  Good Will Hunting's Gus Van Sant helped everyone learn with his terrible color update of Psycho that anything Alfred Hitchcock is on the list.  Because of their stature and beloved popularity, certain old movie stars like Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, among others, make the list too.

One of those stars you just don't try and duplicate is John Wayne.  The original True Grit in 1969 brought John Wayne his only Academy Award win for Best Actor.  His U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn is an iconic performance in true "Duke" fashion, right down to his characterization, line delivery, and heroic audience-winning bravado he creates out of an anti-hero part.  When he spins that lever-action rifle and puts those horse reins in his teeth to go two-gunning at four men by himself, does it get any better? Who in their right mind has the balls, frankly, to tackle Wayne and his greatest role?

That would be this era's most unpredictable risk-taking directing duo, Joel and Ethan Coen.  They are no strangers to making movies their way and turning traditional stories on their ear.  Thought Fargo was just a small town, bumbling cop mystery.  Think again.  Thought No Country For Old Men was a just a Tommy Lee Jones speech or two.  Think again.  For this new True Grit, the Coen brothers went back to the Charles Portis source novel to make a truer version of the original story.  They also brought in one of their favorite muses, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski himself and newly-minted Academy Award winner, Jeff Bridges.  More on Bridges later.  Unconvinced so far?  The results will surprise you.

This new film, unlike the Wayne-centered original, follows the point-of-view of Mattie Ross, older when the movie begins, recollecting her story of trying to bring her father's murderer to justice as a strong-willed 15-year-old girl (first-time feature actress Hailee Steinfeld) years ago in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  The man she seeks is Tom Chaney (Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin).  He has fled to Indian territory to join a gang led by "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper of Saving Private Ryan), outside of the local law's jurisdiction, with her father's horses and the family savings of two California gold pieces.  Undeterred, Mattie seeks a U.S. Marshal who can enter Indian territory to apprehend Chaney.  She finds the "true grit" she's looking for in Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), deemed the most callous, and drunk, around.

After using her conviction to procure the money and convincing necessary to fund the search and enlist Cogburn, Mattie is confronted by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Academy Award winner Matt Damon) who comes to Arkansas on Chaney's trail from murdering a Senator in Texas.  He aims to bring Chaney in himself back to Texas for that murder's hanging and reward and not that of Mattie's father.  Where LaBeouf has no care to "babysit" Mattie, Rooster sees her drive and decides to stand by her involvement.  The three of them, led by Cogburn, begrudgingly pool their interests and enter their search together through the wild country.

Let it be known right now: True Grit joins the short list of remakes that could be superior to their original.  Though it may not be completely fair or right to compare the two and their 41-year-old differences, it's impossible not to watch the new one without recalling its predecessor.  There are many elements of the new adaptation that are superior to the 1969 original.  The story is wisely more focused on Mattie's quest and less on being a star-vehicle for John Wayne, which creates a sublimely sober and true western journey.  A lot of scenes will be familiar between the two films, but have no doubt that the Coens were out to tell their own version of this story.  They have always been brilliant writers and it shows in every line of dialogue. 

No dark area of detail or truth is unexamined or softened, even with the un-Coen-like PG-13 rating.  The under-appreciated Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, an eight-time Best Cinematography Oscar nominee (never a winner), may not have the pristine sunny Telluride, Colorado vistas of the original, but wisely trades them for a more dangerous landscape of dirty towns and snowy claustrophobic woods.  Carter Burwell, another Coen fave, crafts music combining 19th-century church hymns of the period with a small understated score that also tones down the knee-slapping beat of the original.

Another aspect that is greatly improved from the original is the acting.  Hailee Steinfeld, for a first time actress who was 13 at the time, is incredibly outstanding and carries the film with more believability than the older Kim Darby did in 1969.  She will be most certainly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award next month and even deserves to outright win the Oscar.  Matt Damon is a massive improvement from the cheesy weak caricature of Glen Campbell and his LaBeouf can deftly go toe-to-toe, verbally and physically, with Rooster and the danger at hand.  Our villains of Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper (who has to fill a young Robert Duvall's shoes) turn the danger up several notches from a predictable original where you knew no one was going to defeat the great "Duke."

And now back to Jeff Bridges.  Can "The Dude" channel "The Duke?"  As we said before, no one can and no one should try.  To his credit, as brave and as polished as Jeff Bridges is, he doesn't try to, avoiding what could have been a pathetic celebrity impression.  With the story centered on Mattie, he doesn't have to carry all of the brevity or the whole movie.  That still doesn't mean he can hide in the background.  Bridges brought his own level of cantankerous behavior, his own emotional cadence, and his own steely resolve that sets him apart from the icon.

However, as unique and suited to this version of the story Bridges is, no one is John Wayne and it's a notable difference that you either swallow or don't.  In any case, his performance is worth seeing and the new True Grit is an awards-worthy film, right there with the best of the modern westerns like Unforgiven.  It is respectfully and sharply made to earn the respect of those who both have and have not seen the original.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITION OF GRIT-- The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "grit" as "firmness of mind or spirit" and "unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger."  The author of the original novel, Charles Portis, was right to title his work True Grit.  Each of our three heroic characters demonstrate that definition strongly, none more so than Mattie Ross.

LESSON #2: RETRIBUTION IS DIFFERENT THAN REVENGE-- Mattie's goal of bringing her father's killer to justice, by any means necessary, including her joining in the hunt and toting a gun, may come across as vengeance and revenge, but it's not.  It's done with the goal of retribution.  To keep the dictionary warm, "retribution" is defined as "something given or exacted, especially punishment, in recompense."  Mattie wants see Tom Chaney hanged for her father's murder and doesn't care about the monetary reward or the other crimes he's committed and owes for.  It's not about eye-for-an-eye for her.  It's about honoring her father.

LESSON #3: THE LOYALTY IN HONORING AN AGREEMENT-- Cogburn could have took LeBeouf's side and large reward offer, but he saw something in Mattie's quest and determination.  They may have started out at odds, but Mattie proves herself and her worth, gaining Cogburn's respect.  It's a loyalty Cogburn follows through on for Mattie to the very end.