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Review – True Grit

Click poster for more info.

Click poster for more info.

With Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper. Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images. 114 minutes.

Give the Coen Brothers some credit. At least they didn’t pull a “Psycho.” Several years ago, Gus van Sant, an otherwise reputable filmmaker, used his clout to do a virtual shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” with a new cast. There was simply no reason for the film to exist, and critics and audiences quickly dismissed it.

TRUE GRIT is something different, although not quite as different as the Coens and their cheering section would have you believe. Instead of a remake of the 1969 movie that won John Wayne his Oscar as one-eyed bounty hunter “Rooster” Cogburn, it purports to be an adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel. This may be a distinction without a difference as the stories of the two films are virtually identical.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a determined teenage girl in the old West who means to see the men who murdered her father brought to justice. If the local authorities won’t do it, she’ll take matters into her own hands. She hires Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and insists on accompanying him on the mission. Along the way they meet up with a Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon) who’s also after the bad guys, but Mattie doesn’t want them to pay for some crime in Texas. She wants them to pay for murdering her father. As they go on their quest these three very different people with very different agendas come to respect the “true grit” exhibited by the others.

Although much is made in the publicity in how Bridges wears Cogburn’s eyepatch on his right eye whereas John Wayne wore it on his left, this is an utterly trivial and superficial difference. The chief distinction between the two films is in 1969 veteran studio director Henry Hathaway was making an old-style Hollywood film and in 2010 the Coens are making a stark western. Where Hathaway had country music star Glen Campbell as LaBouef, now we get actor Matt Damon. Where the earlier film was dominated by John Wayne sending up several decades of his western roles, here the emphasis is on Matty’s quest, and the dynamics among the three heroes.

These are not minor things, and as an exercise in comparative filmmaking, it is much more richly rewarding that van Sant’s slavish remake of “Psycho.” Yet, in the end, it is largely the same story. For viewers who have never seen or long forgotten the ’69 movie, this is a professional rendition of the tale, beautifully shot by Roger Deakins. For those eager to see how the Coens have transformed it to their own unique sensibility, it may be a disappointment. It’s strictly a matter of taste which is the better telling, with those who like old Hollywood values likely to prefer the Hathaway/Wayne version while those who prefer less sentimentality and a harder edge will go with the Coens.

Ultimately, “True Grit” is not without its rewards, but the Coens can’t quite make the case why this story needed to be told again.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.


About Daniel M. Kimmel

Film critic, author, lecturer.

6 responses »

  1. “Ultimately, “True Grit” is not without its rewards, but the Coens can’t quite make the case why this story needed to be told again”

    Because they can make more off ticket sales to twenty- or thirtysomethings who will go to the theatre and see the Coen Bros. version than they can off the number who might buy the original on DVD or blue ray. It’s not called a film INDUSTRY for nothing.

  2. JOSEPH Francis

    There is nothing wrong with the new “True Grit.” It is compently made and well-acted. The problem is that the entire project, like Gus Van Zant’s vanity-project, “Psycho,” is WRONG-HEADED.

    Why remake the original “True Grit”? The explanation is a desire to “return to the novel.” The presumption is that somehow the first movie was not true to the novel. The second explanation is a desire to return to the formal language of the novel’s dislogue. The “reasons” are BOGUS. The new movie is the identical story as the first, AND 95 PERCENET OF THE DIALOGUE IS EXACTLY THE SAME. The first movie also featured the strange, formal lauguae, although it was delivered so naturally that you soon began to think of it as “normal.”

    I admit that it may be hard to understand’s Jeff Bridges’ dislogue since he choose to deliver each line as if he had his mouth full of chewing tobacco, but whatever.

    Another “reason” is to tell the story from Mattie’s viewpoint. The story has always been told from her viewpoint. Listen to the words of the theme song. The movie has always really been about Mattie’s “True Grit,” not Rooster Cogburn’s. The first movie did lack the coda of “spinster Mattie,” a coda that is self-important and adds nothing to the story. Rooster Cogburn is dead and off-screen in it!

    The original movie had Rooster visiting a convalescing Mattie, who offered him a plot in the family cemetery. She is worried that he will end up in “some neglected patch of weeds.” He reluctantly accepts, provided that he does not have to “move in” too soon.

    She remarks that, as expected, he has bought another big horse. He says, “He’s not as game a Beau, but Stonehill says he can jump a three-rail fence.” She tells him that he is too old and too fat to be jumping horses. He mounts his horse and shouts, hat in hand, “Well, come see a fat old man some time.” And then he and the horse jump the fence, demonstrating again his “True Grit” and wild humor. Now this “coda” means something in terms of the story. What does the new movie’s coda mean besides Coen Brothers pretention?

    Why is this movie so well-reviewed? I can only assume that it is equal parts Coen Brothers worship and John Wayne hatred — a review of his political beliefs, rather than the movie.

    I prefer the first movie, not because I favor John Wayne’s political beliefs. Would you dislike the new movie if you found out Jeff Bridge was antiabortion?

    I cannot think of any way the new movie is not inferior to the first. It is grey and drab (this is hailed as remarkable cinematography), lacks the humor of the rollicking John Wayne, and foregoes the beautiful vistas of Henry Hathaway’s mountin scenry and the stirring score of Elmer Bernsteim. On the other hand, I liked Barry Pepper’s chaps, the likes of which I have not seen since Tom Mix.

    How can anyone think that the new “horse trading” scene matches that of the great Strother Martin? As Col. Stonehill, he is about to explode at Mattie in frustration and anger, but has to hold his tongue because she is a mere girl. It is a masterpiece of comic timing. Later, she returns and he says, “I heard that a young girl fell down a well on the Towson Road. I thought it might be you.” Mattie misses his mordant humor.

    Have you ever known a manhunt in the Old West to continue at night (when you cannot track anyone) and snow? Why does LaBoeuf (a miscast Matt Damon in the new movie) disappear and reappear?

    Wouldn’t you stick with your party in the wilderness, whatever your relationship with Rooster Cogburn? Perhaps these are shortcomings of the novel as well.

    I like the Coen Brothers. “Raising Arizona” was an antic and surreal comedy. But “The Hudsucker Proxy” was a mess. I enjoy watching “Miller’s Crossing,” but I realize it is without significance. “Fargo” was a small masterpiece. But “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” while fun to watch, was self-consconscously arty and pretentious.

    So what’s the verdict? Their work varies in quality. Here, they have tried to stay within a genre — the Western — while adding Coen Brothers touches — like the frontier doctor traveling Indian territory in a bear skin or the man strangely hanged from a tree 50 feet in the air. Who hanged him land why? We are never told — a typical Coen Brothers atmospheric touch. They tried to bring their ironic touch to a conventional Western, with mixed results. The critics — who want to seem in on the “joke” — praised it anyway. The new movie suffers from “presentism,” the belief that any movie much be better when created by contemporaries.

    These are people who wouldl remake Casablanca” with Leonardo DeCaprio as Rick and Anne Hathaway as Ilsa. But at least it would be in color, right?

  3. JOSEPH Francis

    I have not seen you review, but I saw the movie last Friday. I hesitated to do so because I feared making the new movie what I would remember first , but I had no problem since the new move is a true remake. To criticize the first movie because it is not true to the novel is silly since both movies are 95 percent the same. I do not see where the changes in the new movie, such as the “spinster coda,” improve the story. I thought that the ending of the first movie was perfect since it reinforced Rooster’s riotous good spirits, drunken foolishness, and daring. Mattie had become the daughter he never had. The new ending just seems pretentious. So Rooster C0gburn up in a fake “Wild West” showm where paying customers pretended to experience some part of the Old West. This maes his life seem false, a show. The ending of the first movie was ironic, like the closing of the Old West, recapturing a bit of the wildness and action of the Old West.

  4. It really didn’t need to be told again. The layers of fear, greed and revenge are worth discussing in screenplay class. But, overall it could have been left alone. I am actually a little frightened about the heros of screenplay we have turned out this year. Is this a sign of the times? These men are lost, without true character and really lack in true “grit”. I am sickened in a way. Especially if this is a reflection of or projection of a 2011 “man”. Really? Are we that shallow?

  5. I don’t think anyone can really compare the two films to each other, given that they are so strikingly different takes on the same story. You simply cannot compare the performances, production, music, casting choices, cinematography (shot choice, lighting, film stock, color correction, blocking) costume design, production design, set decoration, locations, editing, scene/plot choices, story-tone, because both films have different takes on the story; just like reviewers have different takes on films.

    Take for instance the more popular versions of Batman, where Adam West, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale are all playing the same character, in the same story, yet they are all uniquely different takes on the character and none of them are any better than the other.

    The 60’s Batman was a sign of the times, fun, goofy and action packed, and a show is still hugely successful. Adam West camped it up and gave us a very lovable and memorable Batman…in tights. The 1989 version kept some of the camp, but set it in a more sinister and unique world, and gave us Batman that was almost the polar opposite of Adam West’s version; a small quiet man with a mission. The 2005 version was set in a more realistic and modern environment, and gave us version that was likely Oscar worthy. We finally understood, in this new Batman, how Bruce Wayne actually learned how to become Batman…never saw that before. And, Bale’s Batman was much more angry and conflicted. Were they any better than each other? No, because they are all different takes on the same story and I enjoy them all for their uniqueness.

    The point is that True Grit 1969 and True Grit 2011, are neither better, nor worse, than each other; they are equal in their inequalities. Bridges in not playing Wayne, the Coens aren’t pretending to be Henry Hathaway, and Steinfeld isn’t trying to be Darby. They are all interpreting their versions in their own unique way and both films work well in within the context of their times.

    Why remake it, people ask? Because it’s a story worth retelling. True Grit 2011 delivers a whole new audience to a classic and solid story, which I can tell you all liked, and takes a new and different look at the story that has made me appreciate those characters, and the author’s original story, once again.


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