Monday, December 27, 2010

'True Grit' review

** SPOILER warning. There are some, though it's a remake of a classic film, so it shouldn't really matter

The remake, as an institution in Hollywood, is justifiably reviled by most people. Generally when a film gets a remake it's precisely the kind of film that didn't need one--usually a classic or a widely appreciated film. If there wasn't this existing fan base or interest level, then the studios wouldn't bother remaking it. The irony being that there are thousands of bad films that might have had a novel concept, or a unique story, but which weren't executed well that actually need to be remade, but wouldn't generate any popular interest. Meanwhile these very good films that have followings and get remakes almost always do so with the result of an unnecessary and inferior product. But I suppose this is inevitable as the remake has shown itself to be effective economically.

So why was I feverishly anticipating the remake of True Grit, when the original is already heralded as a very fine Western? Simply enough, because of my faith in the Coen brothers. They are, first and foremost, auteurs so they wouldn't remake a film frivolously. For them to undertake the project there was undoubtedly something fresh that they felt that they could bring to the material. Additionally, it's only been a few years since the Coens gave us No Country for Old Men, which was kind of a brilliant neo-Western, so I felt confident they would be able to deliver the goods in the context of a more conventional Western as well.

While the Coens pretty consistently deliver fine products, some of their offerings don't quite meet my expectations--partially due to the fact that my expectations are always sky high, mind you-- while others exceed them, and True Grit is definitely an instance of the latter. This movie has everything. Vibrant characters given life by stellar performances, the Coens' signature comedic and moral sense, taut pacing, brilliant dialogue, and exquisite imagery. Bridges as Cogburn is unforgettable, and Steinfeld's Mattie Ross is a stunning performance. Roger Deakins' once again shows why he's probably the best cinematographer in the business. Carter Burwell has more to do this time around as True Grit features an excellent and noticeable score, while Burwell's 'score' on No Country For Old Men is one of the most subtle--bordering on nonexistent--scores of all-time. The script, while largely remaining true to the source material, features some distinctly Coen bros. flourishes that work superbly. I could go on about the technical quality of the film, but let's move on.

The comedy in the film is absolutely brilliant and is most pronounced in the first half of the film. The courtroom scene, the scene where Mattie is negotiating, and the scene in Mattie's bedroom are all laugh-out-loud hilarious and feature excellent comedic performances, though they aren't the only funny moments. Damon's portrayal of La Beouf and his exchanges with Cogburn and Mattie are all quite funny. The Coens are sticklers for particulars, and it's the details that really give the film its pulse. Many of the secondary characters are very memorable and often in comedic roles. But don't get it twisted; this isn't a rollicking burlesque. Even in the first half, one of the funnier gags is punctuated with the hanging of three men--which isn't really funny. This moment is a nice microcosm of the tone of the film; characteristic Coens humor mixed with the violence of the West.

Far from being a cynical deconstruction of the American west--which wouldn't be unexpected coming from the Coens--True Grit remains true to the source material and is a simple, honest-to-goodness, classical Western. Though it does have some slightly modern touches. For example, the violence of the West is portrayed in a more realistic light than most Westerns. Mattie Ross stares in horror as men get killed. Cogburn is truly saddened when he is forced to kill a man in self-defense. On a horse ride through an area where some minor characters bodies lay, Mattie and the camera focus intently on the fallen bodies, bringing back memories of the characters. And, most significantly, when Mattie gets her vengeance and kills the man who killed her father, it isn't a triumphant moment; in fact the kickback from her rifle thrusts her into a situation where she ends up badly injured and her life is in danger. Whereas in a typical Western bad guys are often just fodder for the good guys' guns, and their death is quick, silent and celebrated triumphantly. Minor characters especially get no hint of reverence as the camera barely even bothers to watch them hit the ground after they've been shot.

When the brothers Coen do adaptations rather than original works they have a knack for locating material perfectly suited to their cinematic sensibilities. Fargo, No Country for Old Men and now True Grit are all perfect examples of this. With True Grit the Coen brothers have further proven that they can make serious, artistic films that should also serve as crowd-pleasing popular fanfare, if crowds knew what was good for them. At once a traditional, conventional Western, and at the same time something more, True Grit is memorable film and a fine addition to the Coen Bros. oeuvre.