Joel and Ethan Coen, better than any current working filmmaker, are excellent at showing you something intriguing, without exactly knowing what the hell you’re looking at. I don’t mean this figuratively, quite the opposite.
Remember that shot in Fargo of a snow covered… what? What the hell is it? Are those lamp posts? What the hell are we looking at? It isn’t until pathetic ol’ William H. Macy stumbles by that we realize we’re looking at a bird’s eye view of a parking lot. It’s simple, but brilliant in its deception. Same thing goes for the doorknob shot in No Country for Old Men. We tilt our heads like curious dogs, wondering if that’s really Javier Bardem staring back at us.
True Grit opens with one of those shots. Something so ingenious in its originality, it’s damn-near impossible to explain in print. It sets a deliberate tone: the Coen brothers know that you’ve most likely seen the 1969 John Wayne original True Grit, and that’s fine, because they’re going to give it to you in a very different way.
First off is casting Jeff Bridges (who worked for the Coen’s back in 1998 as The Dude) in the lead role of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall hired by a feisty young girl to catch the man who killed her father in cold blood; otherwise known as the role that won John Wayne his only Oscar. What a task Bridges has. How do you recreate arguably the most famous movie character from arguably the most famous actor of all time? Tricky.
With his deep, southpaw voice and dialogue laced with subtle humor, Bridges somehow, rather amazingly, makes Rooster his own. No easy feat, and The Dude does it in stride.
As does 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who delivers a star making, Oscar-worthy performance as Mattie Ross. The whole point of the original film is to show that Mattie has just as much grit as Rooster. Kim Darby did a decent job in ’69, but Steinfeld manages to steal the show in each of her scenes (a compliment, considering she’s in every scene of the picture).
Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper all contribute worthy supporting performances to the landscape appeal of the film, but, as with most Coen brothers movies, it’s the brothers themselves that are the true players.
In a career that has spanned 25 years and several classics (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and on and on) the Coens have asserted themselves as some of the foremost American filmmakers of our time. Everything about their films, regardless of whether or not you enjoy the content, is technically flawless. The look (credit Coen vet Roger Deakins) the sound (credit Coen vet Carter Burwell) and the shape (credit Coen pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) are always top notch. True Grit is no exception.
Even if you’re a fan of the original, as I am, then you’ll enjoy this Coen revamp. Seriously, when was the last time you actually liked a remake as much, or dare I say, more, than the original? A-