'True Grit' (dir/s: Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010/2011), Cert: 15
When is a remake not a remake? This is question that has baffled the film industry, and indeed film critics for decades. In an era of recycled and repeated cinema releases, it seems like a privilege when something original actually comes along, or at an even further stretch, when a good remake hits our screens. Well now we have ‘True Grit’, the latest film from the incredible Coen Brothers which is being labelled as a screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic novel, not a remake of the 1969 film directed by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne which won him his Oscar. The new film sports a strong cast including Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and sees the introduction of Hailee Steinfeld, plus the film has also been nominated for barrels of awards including 10 Oscar and 8 BAFTA nods, so it has a lot of hype to live up to. So let’s say goodbye to the Duke, and say hello to the Dude...
14 year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is out to seek revenge for her father’s murder. Frank Ross was killed in cold blood by the vicious crook Tom Chaney (Brolin) who robbed him of his horse, money and gold coins, as well as his life. Mattie seeks a U.S Marshal to track Chaney down and bring him to justice, and she finds that marshal in Rooster Cogburn (Bridges); a binge-drinking, slurred-talking man who sports an eye patch and is the best at bringing back criminals, more often dead than alive. Cogburn has ‘grit’ and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He and Mattie set out to find Chaney along with LeBeouf (Damon); a Texas Ranger whose been tracking the criminal for other reasons. He has fire in his belly and his eyes set on claiming a healthy reward. The group ride their horses out for the epic adventure that’s about to begin.
For me, this has been one of the anticipation films of 2011 so far. I adore Portis’ novel and am a huge fan of the Wayne original so I had very high expectations for the Coens update, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed, in fact, I was gob-smacked. All the labelling was right; the Coens have presented a screen version of the book, not a remake of the ’69 picture, and it has created an outstanding piece of cinema. The Coens are up with the finest directors of our generation and yet again they fail to let us down. The direction is précised, crisp and fluent making this a spectacular visual treat, and in addition to this already sweet recipe sees Roger Deakin’s breathtaking cinematography. The vast and vacant open spaces are dotted with weather-beaten foliage and dust-smothered stores and saloons which compliments the tone and feel of the feature dramatically. This really is a feast for the eyes and a gorgeous example of how artistic and awe-inspiring cinema can be.
The film is also a stunning Western that mirrors such works as ‘Unforgiven’ (dir: Clint Eastwood, 1992) in style and cinematic tone. Its colour pallet is beautiful; the oaky browns and the golden soot are illuminated by the burning sun and then soaked in a quilt of lush white snow which swallows the screen. Many aren’t fans of Westerns, but this is an exception to the rule and I’m certain that many will be pleasantly surprised.
|Still from 'True Grit' (dir/s: Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010/2011)|
As well as being visually dazzling, ‘True Grit’ also sports a wonderful score that sweeps through the scenes and merges into the constantly present atmosphere. It works beautifully alongside the drama, and indeed the humour which is more frequent than many may imagine. The character’s chemistry provides plenty of bitter-sweet material to keep the viewer chuckling as well as being emotionally connected to the story of murder, betrayal and revenge.
The performances are incredible with every cast member pulling out all the stops. Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn; he doesn’t imitate or even try and replicate Wayne’s performance, he makes the character his own and in doing that, presents a far more accurate version of the novel’s anti-hero. At points, Bridges slurs and mumbles his words so much it just sounds like Southern noises are dripping from his tightly pressed lips, but this doesn’t matter, Bridges performs with such class and cool; he could have said nothing and still been fantastic. He is a tremendous actor and this is a marvellous performance. Damon is also perfect as LeBeouf (pronounced ‘LeBeef’); he is on the money with the novel’s depiction of the character, he’s often funny but he bears a foul temper and methods which seem unjust. Damon is an incredibly diverse actor and he’s put his heart and soul into this brilliant performance. Brolin is also great as Chaney and although his screen time is brief, he makes a big impact on arrival. For me however, the star of the show is Steinfeld. She gives an utterly intoxicating performance as Mattie taking each and every scene in her stride. She is the heart of the story and the body of this picture. At the tender age of 14, she is ripping scenes from Bridges and Damon’s hands and acting like a veteran of the industry. Mattie Ross has become one of my favourite book characters after reading the novel and her screen version impressed me way beyond my expectation. In an ideal world, she would win an Oscar and a BAFTA because she completely deserves them but she’s unfortunate to be up against mighty strong competition. Still, she’ll probably be my actress of the year.
‘True Grit’ may be considered a remake in one respect, but what the Coens and this terrific cast do with this classic tale is far more than just to make a fast buck. This is a triumphant piece of cinema which will be respected and remembered for generations to come. Some might not like to hear it but this is better than the ’69 version and for me, this is the best film of 2011 so far.
An utter masterpiece. Not only is it a great adaptation, it’s a great Western, a great drama, and an utterly stunning picture overall. Joel and Ethan strike gold once again.
By Chris Haydon