Friday, 18 March 2011

Things Ain’t What They Rooster Be

True Grit US 2010
Directed by
The Coen Brothers
Still just about playing
at UK cinemas if you
can find one...

Warning! OK, this article will probably contain spoilers in it... even for people who have seen the original 1969 version of True Grit. I’m not sure about people who have read the book because, frankly, I haven’t.

I should also warn potential readers that this will probably be, like my previous post, somewhat short, because I find myself at somewhat of a loss of interesting things to say about this movie... even though I liked it a great deal.

The Coen Brothers have always been a bit hit and miss for me. I remember going to see stuff like Blood Simple, Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing at the cinema at the time of their release and thinking... yeah, technically brilliant but there’s no real emotion in these movies is there? Then they hit a phase with me where they could do no wrong and brought three movies out in a row which were all pretty good... The Big Liebowski (basically one of the great pieces of cinema of our time), The Man Who Wasn’t There and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Then I kinda lost my way with them and didn’t like a lot of their choices for material and, worse, when I did get to see their later output... didn’t find myself enthralled or entertained as I had been by earlier efforts (even as much as their initial stuff). As a result I didn’t bother with their movie No Country For Old Men and now I wish I had because everybody keeps telling me how brilliant it is.

Now I don’t like it when the Coen Brothers do remakes and stayed well clear of The Ladykillers when they turned their collective eye to that because... well come on? Remake The Ladykillers? Why not just remake Citizen Kane or Star Wars while you’re at it. I initially felt the same about True Grit but then somebody said that it’s more an adaptation of the original novel than a remake and so... well I let the film slip back onto my radar.

Now it’s been a long time since I saw the original version of True Grit... maybe a couple of decades... and so I really don’t remember it all that well. However, one thing that I did remember about the original was Kim Darby in the role of Mattie Ross being absolutely sensational and how the relationship between her and John Wayne’s portrayal of Rooster Cogburn kinda carried the film. I was therefore really annoyed when the Coens’ cast someone other than Ellen Page (from Juno) in the role of Mattie Ross... after all, Ellen Page is pretty much channelling Kim Darby in every film anyway isn’t she? She would have been perfect. If they ever want to do a remake of The Karate Killers then they need to get Page into the picture.

Anyway, I was kinda wounded when I learned Page wasn’t in it but I went along anyway and I have to say... I had a pretty good time with it.

It’s not a remake as such but considering I could hardly remember a thing about the original it was surprising how much of the original was coming back to me when I saw this movie. Seriously... either the original was really faithful to the novel other than the prologue and epilogue book ends or this was more a remake than people would have led me to believe. I hope it’s a case of the former because I don’t see the point of a remake to be honest... and even though I didn’t remember much of the original, this felt pretty much scene by scene to me.

Hailee Steinfeld is pretty darn good, actually, as Mattie Ross. Jeff Bridges is always good but there’s not a heck of a lot of difference (to these nostalgic eyes) between his performance and John Wayne’s original and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf is perhaps, if anything, a little less sympathetic than the way Glen Campbell played him in the original.

Actually, that’s an interesting point to note. The characters in this version are all a lot less sympathetic than in the original and the only ones I really felt sorry for, perhaps perversely, were some of the villains. I just don’t care about the main protagonists in this version enough to root for them all that much and the final death blow on my sympathies lies in the one-armed version of Mattie Ross at the end of the film and how hardened and unlikeable she turned out to be. I think the only one in this picture who I really felt sorry for was the horse, Little Blackie, who Rooster rides to his death to get Mattie to a doctor (securing that death with a bullet to the brain of the horse in question).

But for all this I found myself still quite gripped by the action on screen and caught up in it to a point I didn’t expect. I think it might be just because there are so few Westerns made these days... I even liked Jonah Hex whose titular character was played by Josh Brolin and who winds up here playing Tom Chaney, the man Mattie Ross has sworn revenge to bring to justice as the killer of her father.

A lot as been made of Carter Burwell’s score and he’s certainly a fine composer but I found this one lacking. Listen to Elmer Bernstein’s original and you know the kind of scoring you’ll get on the action sequences... the scoring on this one is quite laid back and more atmosphere based than blistering leitmotif. Nothing wrong with that, of course. That was the late, great Bernard Herrmanns approach to most of his scores too and that worked like gangbusters... I just felt like the music on this one was a little underwhelming at times. Not necessarily blaming Burwell for this though... might have just had his score dialled down too low in the final mix for all I know.

At the end of the day, True Grit is a solid piece of Western filmmaking but, you know what? It seems totally unnecessary to have remade it. It really doesn’t do a whole lot different from its predecessor and one wonders if the Coens’ didn’t just take the money and rune on this one... we all know how much Hollywood loves commissioning remakes these days.

If you like a good Western yarn told in a convincing manner then the new version of True Grit is definitely worth checking out... just don’t go expecting anything earth-shattering or groundbreaking on this one.

Fill your hands you sunnuva -!


  1. I think this is an awesome bullet-to-the-point review. While I don't agree with you about Kim Darby, I also felt that the ghosts of the original walked with every step these characters made, especially Robert Duvall and John Wayne. I also agree that the Coen Brothers are a little distant from their protagonists; their stories are like the old fairy and folk tales to me, stories of choices made and their consequences. I think that's why I do like many of their movies. Who is the Mattie Ross who made such decisions as a youngster? She grew up to be that stern, one-armed battle axe. I wish you would see No Country. Would love to see what you think.

  2. Ha! Yeah, okay. No Country is definitely on my radar at the moment... and what's more it's only about £3 so I guess I'll pick it up at some point.

    Nobody's going to change my mind about how cool Kim Darby was but I'll have to check and make sure now. Luckily... by the power of cheap DVD prices in sales at the moment i was able to pick up the original version for £4 and the sequel for £3 at Fopp records last weekend. So I guess sometime this year I'll be "blogging the double".

    Thanks very much for your comments, as always.