d. Joel & Ethan Coen / 2010 / USA / 111 mins
The Coen brothers always have the ability to surprise with their choice of projects. Even though they are hugely individualistic directors, they frequently choose to direct genre-pieces as if working through a cinematic back catalogue of sorts. In this way True Grit owes as much to Intolerable Cruelty (their take on the romantic comedies of the 1940/50s) as it does to adaptations such as No Country for Old Men. It’s hard not to oversimplify this film as “the Coen’s take on the Western”, ticking off another arbitrary box in their own inimitable style. Perhaps it could best be compared to their version of The Ladykillers, as True Grit is a remake of a film that has already made its mark upon on our screens ( done so in Hathaway’s 1969 effort starring John Wayne).
Owing as much from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel as the 1969 film itself, the Coens reintroduce the book’s original ending and have attempted to recreate the darker yet occasionally humorous tone of the book, which is apt considering that if there’s one thing the Coen brothers excel at making, it’s black comedies.
Forget the cast listing on the posters or the fact that 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld was nominated as best actress in a supporting role at the Academy Awards, she is a leading performer and the principle character in this film. Possibly the most distinguishing characteristic of the movie is that it is told from her (Mattie Ross’) perspective and not that of Rooster Cogburn’s (in this iteration played by Jeff Bridges). Not only does it play a twist (although only slightly) on the tradition of the curmudgeonly gun slinger, it allows the occasional southern Gothic feel of the film to shine through brighter, lending the film a dream like and more mythic quality on occasion. I enjoyed both Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon’s (as LaBoeuf) performances immensely but it was Steinfeld and the focus on Mattie that ensured I was as equally emotionally engaged as I was entertained. I have a sneaking suspicion that as fine as they were, without the shift in character’s importances, Bridges and Damon wouldn’t have been enough to elevate this above a distraction of genre in the Coen’s filmography.
As a Western the film is perfectly executed, the cinematography is excellent and the world certainly has a feeling of weight (or even grit) to it. Moments of humour and absurdity remind you that you’re watching a Coen film but otherwise the brothers have succeeded in proving they can handle the poetics of the Western myth with both style and substance.
It’s difficult to find fault with the film but also to justify its existence (if such a thing should be done). True, the Coens have adapted the original text with more loyalty than the 1969 release but like The Ladykillers, I’m not sure what purpose this remake serves. It’s certainly one of the best Westerns in recent years, and one of the most accessible and enjoyable Coen films I’ve seen recently but there doesn’t seem to be that definitive mix of style and content that films like Fargo offered. It isn’t the best contemporary Western (I still believe Unforgiven holds that title) and I doubt it will be remembered as either the Coen’s or their cast’s best film either (except for the possibility of Steinfeld who one hopes has a promising future). Does that mean it’s not a fantastic movie? Of course not. But it feels like a trail we have travelled many times before; enjoyable though the journey may be, I’m still looking forward to that sense of unpredictability that is synonymous with the name Coen and one that this feature seems to be a slight detour from.