Even in the midst of our current acceptance of reality, which leads us to the conclusion that theaters will be plagued with remakes and there’s little use in griping, there are still those willing to shake a fist in the air when things go too far. Remaking True Grit is the sort of enterprise that causes, at least among some, such fist-shaking.
I am not such a naysayer, speaking in general terms, but there may well be something to the idea that this remake, while not exactly sacrilege, nevertheless misunderstands all the complexities and nuance of its source. Indeed, misunderstands it in such a way that renders the remake unable to really achieve its goals before it even begins.
There is, despite that entrance, much to love about Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of this film. The pair have proven that they are masters of, if nothing else, piecing together stories in such a way that often renders them instant cult classics. Raising Arizona, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski, just to name a few, have an ability to connect with audiences that puts most directors to shame. Here, their talents are aimed more toward their No Country for Old Men (perhaps Miller’s Crossing) abilities, but there are areas that tell of their unique ideas of the craft in general, and their almost accidental stranglehold on viewers.
Their “love it, or hate it” approach stands out, as does their predisposition for displaying the unlikable in every character. Both make their own sense for True Grit, but the Coen brothers, as usual, take things further than most would dare, or bother with, and their touch makes the film what it is.
The story is not much monkeyed with, and I’ll assume we know where we are there. A tenacious, young girl, hardened by her times and circumstance, enlists a largely drunken, aging U.S. Marshall and a Texas Ranger in hunting down her father’s murderer.
The characters, however, and of necessity, are different characters. Hailee Steinfeld‘s Mattie Ross is a much different girl ultimately, and a far more interesting one. She is harder, and it is a “truer” sort of hard. I suspect this is largely due to the prediction that audiences today wouldn’t be able to put up with a Kim Darby, in much the way that I never could. In fact, it is with Steinfeld’s character that the film made its best effort to work, and precisely because the character was adapted (even in this small way) for its audience. Cogburn, odd as it sounds, might have been served well by some de-Cogburning.
Jeff Bridges, though quite good, is playing a role that, while not doomed to failure, is nevertheless doomed to great difficulties. His Rooster Cogburn is Cogburn-esque. He says things Cogburn would say, and in a way Cogburn would say them. He staggers and slurs, and has a great eyepatch. In short, no one would call you out if you were to mistake him for Rooster Cogburn. But, he isn’t.
Bridges delivers, make no mistake, and so does the film itself. Even Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf, in a role that teeters on the edge of being non-existent, works his way into your positive regard for the film, delivering with every look and line. The problem is that there is something hauntingly missing from the film. Despite the fact that Bridges does a superior turn at giving us Rooster Cogburn (better than anyone else would have), it is still almost as if there is the ghost of a character floating about, in a role left unfilled.
The Coens gave this one a valiant effort, and in the end, the film wins out by a certain margin and manages to bring out the entertainment, adventure, and the curiosity that is a young, female spirit locked in the lead of a western. It is, by many counts, a stunning victory to produce something that will be visited with so much praise, and be deserving of the lion’s share of it, as opposed to something that people will look at in much the way most people look at The Hudsucker Proxy.
Still, it is too simple to think that Rooster Cogburn was played by John Wayne, and thus, so long as we stick another name in there (even a fine actor’s name… Hell, even a better actor’s name), we have filled that role. He was played by a legend at nearly the very end of a fifty-year career spanning some 170 titles. An aging legend playing an aging legend, in a film about an upstart (girl of all things!) giving him grief and not all that much respect, in a world that, apparently, now allows upstart girls to give him grief and not all that much respect. It is a world that is changing, not just because Marshalls might have to explain about all the killing they do (what with certain amounts of civility spreading), but also because women don’t just roll over when told, and it played to audiences in 1969 with The Duke as the crotchety, cranky times going by.
You can, if you’re of a mind, put together an entertaining western with great acting all around, backed by two of the finest cinematic minds working today, and you will get a thoroughly enjoyable showcase of talent that most everyone will love, to one degree or another.
But, you can’t remake True Grit.