As soon as it was known the Coen brothers were planning a new film of True Grit, the internet grumbling started in force.
Why remake a great film, demanded the whingers? Well, maybe distance adds charm, but the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, directed by reliable veteran Henry Hathaway, really isn’t that great.
It’s mostly remembered for an overweight John Wayne spoofing his own image, getting drunk and falling off his horse. (True, the role won him his only Oscar, but that was essentially the John Wayne Award For Being John Wayne.)
At 128 minutes Hathaway’s film is overlong and rambling. The ending slides into a sentimentality that’s absent from Portis’ novel.
As Texas ranger Le Boeuf, second-billed crooner Glen Campbell is plain inadequate – worse, if you can credit it, than Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo. Not a disastrous film, all things considered, but one that’s surely ripe for a remake.
And so, 40 years on, here come Joel and Ethan with their take on the story. It’s their first true western – OK, there were western elements in No Country For Old Men, but this is the real McCoy.
Set in the late 1870s, it’s their first period movie set pre-20th Century (unless you count the dybbuk prologue to A Serious Man).
And it’s their return to remake territory, which they explored with regrettable results in 2004’s The Ladykillers.
So with all that riding on it, how do the brothers do? Pretty damn well.
For a start, this is way better than Hathaway’s movie. Not that they’ve messed around with the story; for all their supposed irreverence, the Coens treat their literary sources with respect.
As before, this is the tale of Mattie Ross, an exceptionally mature and level-headed 14-year-old from Arkansas, who sets out to track down her father’s killer with the help of a boozy, one-eyed US Marshal named ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, with occasional interference from Texas ranger, La Boeuf. The ranger, this time round, is played by Matt Damon, a huge improvement on Campbell – well, who wouldn’t be?
But all credit to Damon, who plays down the Texan’s vanity and braggadocio, leaving just enough of it in evidence to be funny without being off-putting.
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As Mattie, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld doesn’t eclipse memories of Kim Darby, who was the best thing about the earlier movie, but she’s equally assured in the role, facing down all comers with a clear-eyed self-possession that recalls Frances McDormand’s police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo. (Also, at 13 she’s much closer to the age she’s playing – Darby was 21.)
In the plum role of Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges can’t totally resist the temptation to ham it up a bit (though a lot less than Wayne did). But given such a richly larger-than-life character, who could blame him?
Bridges lends the Marshal a deep, throaty, mellowed-in-whiskey voice that gives full weight to his hard-bitten pronouncements.
When Mattie protests his decision not to bury a couple of recently deceased baddies, since it’s winter and the ground’s too hard, Cogburn observes, “Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer.”
It’s this richness of language, often expressed with a near-biblical formality which evidently attracted the Coens to this. Much of it’s taken straight from Portis’ novel.
A fatally wounded rustler, asked if he wants to send a dying message to his brother, responds: “It don’t matter about that. I will meet him later walking the streets of Glory,” and when Rooster offers Mattie a slug of whiskey she retorts witheringly, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”
Carter Burwell’s score abets this mood, weaving an evocative tapestry of traditional gospel tunes.
Given their fidelity to the original the brothers get less chance to exercise their trademark sardonic humour, though they do sneak in the occasional pungent jibe.
Early in the action there’s a triple hanging: two of the men are given time to make final speeches to the crowd, one penitent, the other defiant.
The third has the hood slipped over his head before he can get out half a dozen words. But then, he’s just an Injun….
The start and finish point up the difference between the two versions. Rather than laboriously showing (as Hathaway does) Mattie’s father leaving home, heading for local trading centre Fort Smith and being gunned down by his drunken ranch-hand, the Coens cut to the chase, covering these events in a brief voice-over from Mattie as she embarks on her quest for justice.
And where Hathaway opted for a feel-good ending, with Mattie healed in body and soul, Wayne (or his stunt double) showjumping a four-bar fence with a jovial “Come and see a fat old man sometime,” the Coens follow Portis with their elegiac, 25-years-on coda, a poignant meditation on time and loss.
This isn’t so much a remake as a masterly re-creation.
From a classic western novel, the Coens have fashioned a western in the classic mode. Not only does it have the drop on the 1969 version, it’s the first great movie of 2011.