Friday, January 07, 2011

Coens' 'True Grit' is the best kind of mainstream entertainment

Remaking a classic or well-regarded film is always a dubious enterprise that is often marked by scorn from the public if not handled delicately. When true filmmakers decide to take on a remake, though, it is something to pay attention to.

The Coen Brothers’ new version of the western “True Grit” is the rare remake that may actually be better than its predecessor.

The first adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel starred John Wayne as the drunken eye-patch-wearing U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn who reluctantly teams with a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) to aid Mattie Ross, a plucky, strong-willed 14-year-old girl (Kim Darby), and get retribution against the killer of her father.

Made in 1969, the first film earned Wayne an Academy Award for playing somewhat against his heroic image. Cogburn is a flawed, gruff hero, and while it wasn’t a huge departure for Wayne it was a welcome change for Wayne late in his career.

So, why bother adapting the novel a second time when a perfectly fine film already exists? The novel was written from Mattie’s point of view, and the Coen Brothers wanted to restore her voice in the story as well as an omitted epilogue.

The Coen Brothers are among the most distinct, inventive and unique filmmakers working today. Many will be expecting the duo to come at this material at a weird angle, but never ones to repeat themselves they do something quite unexpected: a straightforward adaptation.

Those hoping for something different may be let down, but this is such a near perfect example of pure filmmaking that it is hard to dismiss it as “sell out” film or unworthy of the Coens' talents. They have taken a good film and made it better and richer.

In the new film Jeff Bridges more than ably fills Wayne’s eye-patch with Matt Damon stepping into the role of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. This is Steinfeld's first major role and she makes a striking impression.

Steinfeld, who at the age of 13 is actually a year younger than the character, delicately plays that odd transition age between child and adult. Steinfeld projects a confidence, intelligence and strength well beyond her years.

The way Steinfeld manipulates a horse trader is quite funny, but helps to establish her character. While Steinfeld's Mattie proves herself to be capable of handling herself in the adult world, she also reveals her youth as when she gleefully attempts to break campfire tension with a ghost story.

Bridges, who despite wearing a nearly identical eye patch, doesn’t attempt to imitate Wayne’s famous swagger or speech patterns. Instead Bridges creates a characterization all his own that is broad, but with subtle shading.

Rooster seems like a drunken, bumbling fool, but he has a good heart and values that always swim to the surface no matter how much booze they are drowned in. There is a scene in which Rooster seems indifferent to Damon’s LaBoeuf harshly spanking and whipping Mattie, but when it goes too far he puts LaBoeuf in his place.

It is also a very funny performance with Bridges endlessly rambling about his love life. Even in the humor though the Coens and Bridges finds underlining conflict. When LaBoeuf questions Rooster's shooting skills and Rooster fails at showing his shooting prowess, the scene gets laughs, but Bridges also reveals Rooster’s bruised ego.

Damon also finds a delicate balance of humorous banter with genuine heroism. Like Rooster, LaBoeuf is a good, but flawed man with his shortcoming being his cockiness and vanity.

Josh Brolin, in the small but crucial role of murder Tom Chaney, creates a vivid villain. Chaney plays dumb to mask his darker side, but when Brolin reveals that side it is truly frightening. When Mattie gets her retribution, you feel the man deserved it.

The Coen Brothers are such assured filmmakers that nothing rings false. This is the best kind of mainstream entertainment. It has everything you want: humor, action, moments to make you cheer, unexpected thrills and heart-wrenching pathos. A climatic sequence of selfless heroism is full of such undeniable power. If it doesn't move you, nothing will.

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