The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of True Grit was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
I know it sounds odd to say so, but while watching True Grit, I was reminded of this year’s remake of The Karate Kid. Obviously, the comparison does not come in terms of content, but in the fact that both are remakes of well-known films that are beloved in certain circles. As is the case with the original Karate Kid, I don’t have any kind of emotional attachment to the original version of True Grit, so I didn’t have the usual knee-jerk negative reaction that I have to most announced remakes. And like The Karate Kid, I felt there was actually room for improvement. With Joel and Ethan Coen behind the camera, there is definite improvement over the original (a rarity in the remake game), but the story remains largely the same, leaving me entertained but wondering what the point of a remake was in the first place.
After her father is gunned down by a low-rent outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (the impressive Hailee Steinfeld, who manages to be endearing with a character who could have been annoying) hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track him down and bring him to justice. Cogburn is a one-eyed, grumpy, drunken mess, but he has the reputation of being one of the toughest men to ever strap on a gun. Already frustrated by being saddled with the young Mattie (who insists on going along for the manhunt), Cogburn is faced with the additional indignity of having to put up with a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also tracking Chaney for the murder of a Texas senator.
What’s interesting is that for most of the running time, the film is largely a rambling character comedy. Cogburn is certain of his skills, even as they diminish due to age and booze. LaBoeuf fancies himself an intellectual, peppering his talk with Latin phrases while bragging about the prowess of the Texas Rangers. The joke quickly becomes that while he may talk a good game and can handle himself in the wild, he’s no match physically for Cogburn or intellectually for Mattie, who is well-versed in the law, matters of finance, grammar, and religion. While Cogburn and LaBoeuf get on each other’s nerves with their bluster, Mattie talks circles around both of them, poking holes in their logic and morally judging their less-than-righteous behavior. Their interplay is consistently funny with clever turns of dialogue while Bridges, Steinfeld, and Damon hit the right tone of bemusement and weariness with each other’s company.
Surprisingly, considering their background of subverting genre expectations, the Coen brothers play the rest of the western elements straight. There are gunfights, hangings, stabbings, horseback chases, a character getting dragged behind a horse, people falling into open mines, and other traditional western tropes that are too numerous to list. Given that the story is set in the late 1870s, when the country was going through massive changes (the last gasp of the Native Americans at Little Big Horn, the long healing process after the Civil War, the expanse of the railroads), there is ample opportunity to go against the grain and tell a tale that takes advantages of these changes. But given the trend of revisionist westerns since Dances with Wolves, maybe crafting a traditional western is the most surprising thing you can do with the genre.
I have not read the Charles Portis novel that inspired both films, but as I understand it, this newer version is a much more faithful adaptation than the John Wayne version. I have no doubt of that, considering how faithful No Country for Old Men was to Cormac McCarthy’s novel (to that film’s eventual detriment, in my minority opinion). I just wish that the Coen brothers had made the story more their own. There is something of a continuation of the theme of time marching on, no matter how much the characters try to stop it, from No Country…, but for the most part the film feels strictly like a very good genre exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that (especially when you bring along a cast this talented), but I can’t help but feel just the tiniest bit let down.
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