Reviewed by: Scott Brennan
|Featuring:||Matt Damon (La Boeuf), Jeff Bridges (Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Domhnall Gleeson (Moon), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), more »|
|Director:||Ethan Coen, Joel Coen|
|Producer:||Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Scott Rudin Productions, Mike Zoss Productions, more »|
It is one of the year’s best films, hands down. Leave it the Coen brothers to keep both the “true” and the “grit” in their rendition of this superb remake. Just because the art of filmmaking has evolved dramatically over the past 41 years since the original “True Grit” doesn’t mean the new version will outdo the old. More often than not, it usually doesn’t. However, in the opinion of this reviewer, the new “True Grit” is better than the first—and on so many levels. Starting with the Scripture that went up on screen in the first minute:
The wicked run away when there is no one chasing them… (Prov. 28:1).
The story is simple, but profound. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) heads out in the beginning to set right her father’s affairs. He was shot dead in a nearby town by his own employee, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who himself has fled into Indian Territory and is hanging out with a bunch of outlaws like Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Mattie inquires about bounty hunters and ends up hiring the meanest Marshall around, one with a lot of “grit” named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to find Chaney and bring him to justice—in a biblical sort of way. She drives a hard bargain, as a young bookkeeper, but finds competition when joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also trailing Chaney for the death of a Texas State Senator—for his own bounty reward. This improbable trio sets out on an adventure that none of them will soon forget.
Joel and Ethan Coen took license with the story, as needed. Although they wandered off a bit from the favored original screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, they did stick closer to the storyline from the book. The parts of the dialogue that were almost verbatim in both versions were basically straight from the novel (by Charles Portis) and essential for the telling of this captivating story. At the onset, the Coen brothers told Jeff Bridges that he didn’t have to worry about filling the big shoes of “the Duke” (John Wayne’s nickname). No one could be expected to do that anyway, especially considering Wayne finally nabbed his only Academy Award® for this iconic role of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version of this film. That gave a lot of space to Bridges to make “Rooster” his own.
Jeff depicts Cogburn as the cantankerous, fearless U.S. Marshall with his own inimitable style, a bit darker and more human than Wayne’s portrayal, and for the second year in a row, he’s almost certain to be a contender for the Best Actor Oscar®. (He won it last year for “Crazy Heart.”) Supporting him was the also tight performance of Matt Damon, whose movies have now banked more than 2 billion dollars in Hollywood. After coming off of “Invictus,” with his stellar performance last year, he has taken another character, made famous in the original by Glen Campbell, LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef” in the film) and made it his own.
Josh Brolin supports the cast well with a smaller role as the notorious antagonist, Tom Chaney, along with Barry Pepper who plays the wild “Lucky” Ned Pepper. But the real show stopper has to be newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who played the lead character of Mattie Ross, rightly focused on by the Coen’s as “central” in this second version of the film. She has the toughness and determination of Mattie, as portrayed by Kim Darby in the original film, but without Kim’s nearly flat affect. Hailee’s well-rounded interpretation shows great depth of emotion, well-tagged to her proper Christian upbringing and sense of duty, as told in the story, especially considering her young age (13). Again, another Oscar® nomination is possible here. Finally, the glue that holds them all together is really the adherence to the “voice of the era,” as written in the novel by Portis, dialogue which was skillfully integrated by the Coen brother’s into their screenplay adaptation. Like “No Country for Old Men” the Coen’s went for big sweeping epic western, with a little darker edge to it (“Fargo” realism), which was to be expected, while remaining true to the author’s (Charles Portis) original intent.
The location shots in New Mexico and Texas combine with the stunning cinematography by the DP, Roger Deakins, make for an exquisite backdrop, one that I thought the Coen’s wouldn’t be able to duplicate when comparing it to the original pristine shots of Bishop, California a la 1969 in the first movie. They and Deakins took it over the top, in a good way.
There are several instances of cursing or taking the Lord’s name in vain or vulgarities or profanities which include: [g*d d*mm*t (2), dag nammit (1), son of a b*tch (1)] and the like, but truthfully, they are few by comparison to common films in this genre.
The PG-13 rating was earned more for the violent sketches which are part of both films, but are much more graphic in this one. There is a quick shot of a couple of removed fingers laying on a table and a close range shot of Rooster killing his prisoner, where blood sprays across his face. It is essentially the same scene as in the first “True Grit,” but a lot grittier—Coen-brother-style. The squeamish should turn their heads or hide their eyes. There is also a scene where LaBoeuf is spanking Mattie, and another where Rooster kicks some Indian kids off a porch (twice) in an offhanded and rude way with racist undertones, although it fit with his character as portrayed. Also, Rooster is sipping from a whisky bottle throughout the film.
This is not a film for children, by any means. Also, the final shots and dénouement are a bit dark and do not support the more Christian character of Mattie as presented or developed in the rest of the film. Mature teens or adults who would not be offended by what I just mentioned above, are the only ones I could recommend seeing the film.
The storyline cannot be separated from either its period in U.S. History or its reliance upon Christian virtue as the order of the day in that society. The soundtrack playing an instrumental version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” at varying tempos throughout the film is a subtle reminder that not only is Mattie relying on God’s providence to help her bring about justice and avenge her father’s death legally, but that we all are, whether we realize it or not, leaning on those same everlasting arms. There is a powerful scene in the climax where this comes into full view under a starlit sky—a scene that won’t leave my memory anytime soon.
At one point in the film the narrator says:
“You pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”
This is a central theme to the film as characterized by Mattie’s measuring out the cost of every transaction in life with such meticulous detail. But there is no hiding the grace of God. Even a criminal about to be hanged repents aloud to the crowd and asks for mercy and grace to be extended to his family after his death. The prevalence of the redemptive theme and justice pursued under the laws of the land by both “saint and sinner” in this story are enough for me to give this film an above average moral rating—especially since many westerns leave God out of the picture entirely.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Mild / Sex/Nudity: None
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. —Romans 12:19
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