It wouldn't be wrong to call the Coen Brothers' new film True Grit a remake of the 1969 John Wayne starrer, but sometimes the word "remake" just doesn't apply well. The original Western directed by Henry Hathaway is unmistakably a Wayne vehicle. This meant taking the source material -- the novel by Charles Portis -- and adapting it to shift its focus from the main protagonist, 14-year-old Mattie Ross, in favor of creating more spotlight on Wayne's character, Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. By the end of the '69 film, Rooster, an aging, ornery pounds-packing fellow obviously adapted as a direct metaphor for Wayne's career persona, has clearly been defined as a hero. By the end of it, I remember thinking it hardly mattered what the story was, just as long as it gave Wayne the chance to comment on and contribute a little further to his own legend.
I don't believe Joel and Ethan Coen gave Wayne's True Grit a single thought; instead, they re-adapted Portis's novel from square one, by all accounts staying more faithful to the original story and this time keeping the spotlight on the journey of Mattie Ross, here played by Hailee Steinfeld. The tale, following Mattie's attempt to avenge her father's murder by hiring the toughest marshal she can find to help her track and arrest the killer, is more solidly a revenge tragedy, where the business of revenge proves messy, harrowing, and high-priced. As handled by the ever detail-oriented, visually thoughtful, and dialog conscious Coens, the movie emerges as a strong work, confident in its own scope and themes.
I may find no better compliment than to say the movie is indeed the sum of its wonderful parts. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, but this isn't "The Dude" playing "The Duke" -- his version of Rooster feels more authentic to the type of character he was surely meant to be, a mercenary thug on the right side of the law because he retains some rattled semblance of moral dignity. Matt Damon portrays LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins the hunt, and whose easily wounded pride and name's pronunciation (as in "la-beef") provides a bit of incidental comedy. Rightly, though, 13-year-old Steinfeld owns the stage here, more than holding her own against her veteran co-stars; her line deliveries alone ensure that we remember she's the reason we're here, to witness her adventure.
The movie's production looks marvelous, not necessarily because the Western setting feels authentic but perhaps more because the environment feels engrossing enough to taste. There's no doubt about the story being set in winter this time, with the chilling sights of snowfall filling the screen. Nighttime shots in particular feel darker and scarier; praise goes out once again to the Coens' usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The Coens themselves wrote the screenplay, imbuing the speech with the color of a different place and time.
It's also a kind of revelation to see how well the story of True Grit fits the sensibilities of the Coens, that all along it was about events not cooperating with the best-laid plans. Mattie is a meticulous character, and though the story isn't meant to be an overt lesson for her, it does provide the kind of extraordinary circumstances and experiences that would fill those spaces of her mind reserved for wisdom. As the trio's quest continues and verges on falling apart, the importance of the matter of specific revenge wanes relative to the differing dynamics, interests, and actions of all the characters involved, and is dwarfed even further by the greatness of the unsettled country through which they travel. Once again, the Coen universe proves unkind to small minds and reveals its cruelty to the more thoughtful; the more determined characters decide to keep a course, the more absurd the world seems to become.
In the face of this, it's all Mattie can do to keep a sense of control, a little hope, and some faith in the people she chooses to place that faith upon. And as the Coen Brothers show, that requires true grit.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.