"You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God."
--Mattie Ross, "True Grit"
Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Chris discuss the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen had never made a genuine Western before they made 2010's "True Grit." The closest they had come were the modern stories "No Country for Old Men" and "Raising Arizona" because they had settings in the Western United States and "The Big Lebowski" because it had Sam Elliot in a featured role. A real Western like "True Grit," set in the real Old West, must have been a challenge to them, but since they had done so well making practically every other kind of film from drama to comedy over the previous three decades ("Blood Simple," "Miller's Crossing," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "Burn After Reading"), they probably figured...Why not. The remarkable thing is that as with most of their other films, they were so successful at it.
The one question the brothers continued to receive about "True Grit," however, was why they wanted to do a remake in the first place. After all, critics argued, John Wayne had already starred in what a lot of people thought was the definitive adaptation of Charles Portis's 1968 novel. How could the Coens presume to improve upon it? The answer the Coens gave, of course, was that they were not remaking the John Wayne movie. They were making an entirely new adaptation of the novel, starting from scratch, so to speak. The new movie really is quite different from the older one, and in almost every way an improvement.
Still, it's hard to talk about the Coen film without making comparisons to the older version, so let's begin with just a few of the differences, not counting the cast, which we'll get to later. First, there's the earlier title song sung by Glen Campbell, which was singularly mundane and dated, and Elmer Bernstein's musical score, which worked harder to sound like Jerome Moross's theme for "The Big Country" than it did to evoke the spirit of the West. In the Coen film, the background score by Carter Burwell (who had also done "Raising Arizona") is spare and gospel-inspired, mostly solo piano with occasional orchestral accompaniment; it's far more faithful to the era and more readily supports the Coens' and director of photography Roger Deakins's lyrical vision of the American frontier. Next, in the older film, the clean, colorful costumes seemed dated, reminding one not so much of the Old West as of Western television shows and movies of the Fifties and Sixties. In the Coen rendering, every piece of clothing is authentic down to the underwear the actors wear. Finally, audiences no doubt loved the beautiful Colorado scenery in the older movie, even though Portis set his story in Arkansas, which at the time of the setting folks still considered the West. After all, Arkansas was across the Mississippi, close to Texas and Oklahoma, in America's undeveloped, backwoods countryside. So Texas (and New Mexico) is where the Coens filmed most of their movie.
The fact is, everything about the older film cried out "Hollywood Western," whereas in the Coens' movie we get a picture of the real West; exaggerated in some places for amusing effect, perhaps, but no more so than the novel.
Anyway, you remember the plot and characters: The time and place are Arkansas, 1878, and a no-good scoundrel named Tom Chaney has robbed and murdered the father of a young, fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross. The girl determines to track the varmint down and see him hanged, if she doesn't kill him herself with her father's old gun. But she needs help finding the man, so she looks for the meanest, orneriest U.S. Marshal around and lands upon Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, a man with "true grit." It turns out, however, that Cogburn is overweight and almost perpetually drunk. It doesn't stop Mattie, though, who finally badgers and bribes him into helping her. Along with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, who is also looking for Chaney, the three of them eventually ride out on their adventure, if not quite together. The story is humorous, charming, exciting, and touching in equal measure.
At the center of the story is the drunken, "one-eyed fat man," Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a character John Wayne had made his own in a bigger-than-life, self-mocking caricature that endeared him to his fans. The novel's author had even stated he had Wayne in mind when he wrote the book, so there was obviously no use in the Coens trying to find someone to duplicate the Duke's performance. Instead, they chose an actor they'd worked with before, Jeff Bridges, who had just won an Oscar for Best Actor in "Crazy Heart" the year before playing a broken-down country-Western singer. The fit was ideal. If Wayne's Rooster was a lawman who would rather shoot first and ask questions later because he was tough and didn't trust the justice system, Bridges's Rooster was a lawman who shot first because he was too lazy to ask questions. For this new Rooster, killing his man and hauling the carcass over his saddle is simply easier and more efficient than trying to bring him back alive. Bridges is a complete delight, a crusty, cranky, surly fellow, yet not without true grit or true heart. And it helps that he is ever the perpetual slacker, the Dude.
Almost of equal importance in the film, perhaps of greater importance, is actress Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. In the first film, Kim Darby played the young girl described in the book as fourteen years old. Ms. Darby was fine in the role and made us forget that she was in reality in her early twenties, married, with a family. Here in the new version, we find an actual fourteen-year-old in the part, an actress every bit as fearless, headstrong, and determined in her characterization as Ms. Darby was. I tell you, though, I think Ms. Steinfeld got robbed at the Oscars. The Academy nominated her for Best Supporting Actress, but they gave the nod to Melissa Leo in "The Fighter," who was clearly louder. I seldom agree with the Academy but, to take nothing away from Ms. Leo, this decision truly angered me. (The Academy also nominated "True Grit" for nine other Oscars in all the biggest categories, and it won none.) Ms. Steinfeld is letter-perfect as Mattie Ross, her confrontation with livestock dealer Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) establishing her strong-willed personality early on and showing us she has the truest grit of anyone in the story.
Then there is Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger La Boeuf. This role was one of the major weaknesses of the earlier film, which had cast a hopelessly outclassed actor, the singer Glen Campbell, in the part. In the Coens' film, Damon plays the character as a flamboyant dandy, sporting a pearl-handled six-gun, a wide-brimmed hat, a long buckskin jacket, and a full mustache and sideburns. Like the rest of the actors, Damon is spot-on, never overplaying his hand--a ridiculous figure but never a figure of ridicule.
Lastly, a word of the movie's dialogue. At first it seems more than a bit odd, with some people, like actor Barry Pepper (who plays Lucky Ned Pepper in the film) calling the story's language a kind of cowboy Shakespeare. You see, the characters don't use contractions as we do in speech and writing today. "I don't" becomes "I do not," "What's your intention" becomes "What is your intention," and so forth, which done once in a while is fine but done continuously can begin to annoy. At least at first. Say, the first five or ten minutes of the film. Then it begins to sound perfectly normal and natural. The argument is that people in the nineteenth century and before didn't employ contractions to the extent we do nowadays. Whether the theory is correct or not, I do not know and I do not care. Yet it's not just a gimmick; it works to provide an added poetry to the film's dialogue, and it sets the film apart as something special.
Yes, "True Grit" really is something special.
John's film rating: 8/10
The Film According to Chris:
The original "True Grit" ends with a blurry freeze frame of one-eyed fat man Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) on horseback, hat held high and whooping a silent "Yee-haw!" as the end credits roll. It was 1969, and every John Wayne movie was first and foremost a John Wayne movie and directors like Henry Hathaway knew their primary job was to burnish the Wayne legend. Just a year later, Wayne would need to be introduced by a hallelujah choir -- "Chisum! John Chisum!" -- which seemed only fair since he was, at last, Oscar-winner John Wayne. But in 1969, a classy freeze frame was still enough.
Not burdened with the responsibility of beatifying their star, the Coen Brothers end their new take on "True Grit" (2010) in a very different place. In a coda set years after the film's main action (and not used in the original), an adult Mattie Ross, silhouetted against a snow-gray sky, walks away from the camera over the crest of a hill as a cold wind howls. Hardly a triumphant summation like the original, but the Coens are interested in exploring more serious territory this time around.
Of course this is the Coens we're talking about so it probably comes as little surprise that their film is simultaneously grimmer (yes, grittier) and funnier than the original. John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was introduced hopping off his mount and tucking his rifle under his arm as he brought an outlaw into town to face the judge. Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn makes his debut in a slightly less dramatic fashion -- while making Duke-y in an outhouse.
It's a classic moment of skewed Coen humor. 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has come to town to retrieve the body of her father who was shot by the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Seeking a U.S. marshal to hunt down Chaney, she learns about the "meanest" and most "pitiless" of the lot and swiftly tracks him down. Knocking on the door of the outhouse, she tells Rooster: "I have business with you." Rooster (voice-only): "I have prior business." Mattie: "You have been at it for quite some time." Rooster (thumping on the outhouse wall): "There is no clock on my business!"
As Rooster soon learns, Mattie will not be trifled with in matters of business of any kind. Following in the footsteps of the uber-plucky Kim Darby, Hailee Steinfeld fashions Mattie as a tween-Terminator with clipped diction, sometimes eerily devoid of affect, and absolutely unstoppable when she sets her mind to a goal. It's a challenging performance for any actress, let alone a 13 year-old making her feature debut. Just as was the case with Kim Darby (who had the advantage of being a veteran 21 year-old playing 14), the Mattie Ross character and her unique voice will grate on some viewers' nerves. I only recently came to appreciate Darby's idiosyncratic performance, alternately irritating and endearing but always committed, myself.
Steinfeld is more than suited to meet the challenge, capturing all the verve and vulnerability that Darby brought while bringing a fresh naiveté that perhaps only an actress of the appropriate age for the role could offer. She is tough, but never implausibly so. She has "sand" but she's no hero, and like most young girls she loves ponies. This has been a banner year for young actresses. Along with Elle Fanning's eye-opening turn in "Somewhere," Steinfeld delivers the best performance by any American actress that I have seen in 2010.
Comparing Bridges' performance to John Wayne's is necessary but somewhat less fruitful. Wayne had long since perfected his on-screen persona and worked it to tremendous effect with Rooster Cogburn, one of his most iconic roles even if "True Grit" wasn't one of the very best John Wayne films. While the Duke was simply being the Duke (not so simple – how many other actors could have played the Duke?), it's a little harder to suss out what Bridges is doing.
Buried in a mass of scruffy hair and working a thick, mumbled accent that often sounds like its own punch line, Bridges' Cogburn seems like an inherently comic character on the surface, but this Rooster can be much more of a bastard than Wayne's. Part of the Duke's persona was the guarantee that no matter how ugly things got, you knew it was going to be OK because, darn it, the Duke always meant well. There are no guarantees this time around, and Bridges' likeable drunkard can turn mean and unreliable when the mood strikes; as he admits, he is a failed husband and father and it's easy to see why. He also likes to kick children though, to be fair, they were asking for it.
It's easy to see what attracted the Coen Brothers to the project. Novelist Charles Portis (whose 1968 book served as the source for both films) writes dialogue like a Coen Brother from another mother, and his slightly stilted, mostly contraction-free verbiage is a perfect match to their sensibilities. Actor Barry Pepper (who plays outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper in the new film) describes the dialogue as "cowboy poetry done by Shakespeare." I don't know whether Portis or the Coens are responsible for lines like "It is an unfair leg up in any competition to shoot your opposing number." But it's not hard to listen to the dialogue in "True Grit" and hear echoes of prior Coen hits such as "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" and "Why... he was hardly a sentient being."
Matt Damon, greatly improving on the Glen Campbell role from the original, provides some of the film's better comic moments as the preening La Boeuf (pronounce "Le Beef" 'cause this is America, dang it), another lawman on the trail of dastardly Tom Chaney. In what might be the line delivery of the year, a smug Damon leans back in his chair and pulls back his jacket lapel. Shit-eating grin planted firmly on his face, he fondles his silver star and says to young Mattie: "Texas Ranger." Young Mattie is not impressed.
Comedy aside, the aforementioned coda brings one of the previously understated aspects of the story into relief. While the original film wasn't a lark, Mattie was played mostly for her lovable feistiness. But the story of a 14 year-old girl whose life is consumed by a desire for vengeance is an inherently tragic one. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the few adults who are (for a price) part of her life not only fail to dissuade her from submitting to blood lust, but enable her obsession. Where the original suggested a neat and potentially happy ending, this film's coda suggests that the events of this revenge tale leave a dark and lingering legacy, on Rooster's soul as well as Mattie's. And Steinfeld's steely performance (more remarkable every time I think about it) provides evidence of a pathology that was already deeply rooted in this young lady and exacerbated by fresh trauma. For me, this is where the Coens' "True Grit" really soars. While many of the individual scenes in the film adhere closely to the original, the two movies have radically different focuses.
Roger Deakins' gorgeous photography captures both naturalistic panoramas and surrealist moments of abstraction, particularly in the film's harrowing final scenes which border on noirish animation. Whether you view this as a remake or a separate adaptation of the novel (as the Coens prefer to think of it), "True Grit" exceeds its predecessor in almost every way. Deftly balancing grotesquerie and comedy, the Coen Brothers bring their unique touch to a full-blown Western and the net result is one of the best American feature films of the year.
Chris's film rating: 8/10
A dual-layer BD50 and MPEG-4/AVC encoding preserve the film's original aspect ratio, 2.35:1, and all of its beauty on high-definition Blu-ray. The color palette's burnished browns are lovely, the blacks are deep, the whites are glistening, skin tones are realistic, and the other hues are deep and rich. Definition and detailing are consistently sharp, with very few exceptions like a couple of softer medium and long shots. What can I say: The PQ is as perfect as one could want; I certainly found no fault in it.
With an exceptionally deep bass, extended highs, and an exemplary midrange, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack produces sonics that match the excellence of the video. There's a wide front-channel stereo spread, with a pleasant ambient bloom in the surrounds for the musical background and action in all the speakers when environmental noises occur. Then, during the story's gunfights, bullets fly from every corner of the listening area. Add in some wide dynamics and strong transient impact, and you get sound that does justice to every scene.
The first of two discs in this Combo set is a Blu-ray that sports a healthy assortment of short featurettes. "Mattie's True Grit: Behind the Scenes with Mattie Ross" is about five minutes on the young actress and how she approached the role. "Outfitting the Old West: From Bustles to Buckskins" is about eight minutes on the film's costume design. "Colts, Winchesters & Remingtons: The Guns of a Post-Civil War Western" is about five minutes on the authenticity of the guns and gun belts in the film. "Recreating Fort Smith" is about eleven minutes on the production design of the town in the time period. "The Cast" is about five minutes on the stars of the film. "Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard of..." is the longest of the featurettes, about thirty-one minutes on the importance of the book's author. And "The Cinematography of True Grit" is about three minutes on the excellence of the Roger Deakins photography.
The extras on the BD conclude with an oddly meager ten scene selections; bookmarks; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; English audio descriptions; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two in the set contains a DVD of the feature film, plus a digital copy (the offer expiring June 7, 2012). The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a handsome slipcover.
The Coen brothers' "True Grit" became my favorite film of 2010; indeed, it became one of my favorite Coen brothers films of all time, right up there with "Fargo," "Miller's Crossing," "O, Brother," and, naturally, "The Big Lebowski." Combining shrewd humor, plucky adventure, indelible performances, attractive photography, and an unrelenting pursuit of genuineness, the Coen version of "True Grit" entertains with every step it takes. It's pretty hard to knock a film that does its job.
"Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!"