Monday, December 27, 2010

True Disappointment

John Wayne is no longer the definitive Rooster Cogburn. There, I said it.

Some of my older readers may remember my stint as a comics reviewer a few years back. In the comments field for this review, a discussion began on what actors were the "definitive" versions of the characters they played on screen. The commentators, including several friendly blog authors, bandied about several names, including Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, George Reeves as Superman and Patrick Warburton as the Tick. Then came the comment of The Opinioness (who went by a different moniker back then), recommending the legendary cowboy actor John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. My first reaction was obvious: "Who the bleep's Rooster Cogburn?"

Marshall, the best picture award got away!
Backtrack and rewind to 1969, when True Grit was adapted for the silver screen from the novel by Charles Portis. A classic western film, True Grit told the story of US Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, a one-eyed, overweight drunk who is supposed to have "grit", or a fearless nature that makes him not one to be messed with. Played by the legendary cowboy actor John Wayne, the film won him his only Academy Award and the movie itself is considered one of the greatest westerns of all time. With any such classic, a retelling would warrant quite a bit of skepticism from anyone wishing to see it, as remakes are often lacking in the same intangibles that made the originals so great. Even with the recent modernized westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford showing such promise, there's still room for doubt. So despite the great trailers preceding this film's release, it was with a bit of uneasiness (and memories of the bitter pill that was the final act of the Coen Brothers' 2008 film, No Country for Old Men) that I went into the theaters Christmas day (keeping a family tradition alive). I was hopeful that what I was about to see would be good, but you can never be sure of anything, even if it's trailer uses Johnny Cash to great effect.

I'm %#@&ing Matt Damon!
Following more closely the story from the book than the original film, True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl in 1800's rural west, whose father was killed by by one of his hired hands while on a business trip. Ross decides to hire  the services of Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), because she's convinced he has "true grit", to hunt down the lowlife Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) since she believes otherwise that justice won't come for the crime of her father's death. With the insistence that she go along, and the unwanted help from a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), the hunt for Tom Chaney is on, with a wild frontier and a nasty assortment of bandits in between the trio and justice.

If the hat doesn't fit, you must acquit!
For the first three quarters of the film, all you can do is sit back and let the experience of viewing the film wash over you. If you've seen the original film, you can appreciate how some scenes in the new version are complete different than before, and how some scenes were surprisingly untouched. Having never read the book, I'm inclined to think that these changes were to make the story more along the lines of the novel, since that was the Coens' stated intention. The script is also appropriately funny in places. While much of the humor is Rooster's drunken ramblings or the occasional quip from La Boeuf, there are some scenes - like one in which Mattie negotiates to sell back the ponies her father had bought to the original seller to raise money to hire Cogburn - are intentionally gut-bustingly funny. That of course is not to say that this western film has been turned into a situation comedy, just that the Coens still have a good grasp on how and when to use humor effectively.

Rooster needs a smoky smoke to make Mattie more bearable
What was probably the biggest challenge would be recasting the inimitable Cogburn, whose prior performer John Wayne created a permanent retinal image for many a western fan. Nabbing Academy Award winner Bridges was surely not difficult, since he'd worked with the Coens before in 1998's The Big Lebowski, but matching Wayne blow for blow would surely be folly. That's why it's great to see this Rooster Cogburn as less sympathetic and more surly than his earlier contemporary. The original film made Cogburn out to be heroic despite his personal failings while the remake shows him to be more true bastard than true grit. Here, his drinking has real consequences, and while he does worry somewhat about the well-being of Mattie, it's often overshadowed by his demons and violent streak. Bridges, to his credit, never tries to make Rooster too likable to the audience, and his personal faults create a divide between him and his allies almost as deep as those between he and his enemies.

Someone's True Grit is spilling out on the ground as we speak...
The rest of the cast put on notable performances, though none near as effectively as Bridges. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, daughter of "Body by" Jake Steinfeld, is the best of the rest, spunky and resourceful as young teenager Mattie Ross. While purposely annoying at times to the elder characters in the film, Ross's single-minded determination to see justice brought to her father's killer despite the hardships involved is admirable, and Steinfeld's performance conveys everything that is good and right about the character. Texas Ranger La Boeuf has far less focus here than he did in the original film, but it does nothing to lessen Matt Damon's performance as the Ranger hunting Chaney for his own reasons. Damon brings a sense of humor and spirit of adventure to the role, and while it's not his best performance, he does enough to keep the story moving forward and his role is actually more believable here than in the first film's tale. I wasn't sure what to expect from Tom Chaney in this film, if the Coens would decide to make him more vicious, but thankfully Josh Brolin is just as mewling as Jeff Corey was in the original. The fact that Chaney was more pathetic than anything made him surprisingly a more effective villain, and the Coens thankfully realized this as well. Barry Pepper rounds out the cast as "Lucky Ned" Pepper (no relation, I'm guessing), the surprisingly-noble bandit who Chaney throws down with after escaping into no-man's land. Pepper in his small role is believable, though perhaps his character is somewhat less so as a supposedly-ruthless gang leader who seems to at least treat Mattie with some respect when the two characters meet late in the tale.

Like La Beuf with his poor aim, Damon has no shot at an acting award this year
Unfortunately, all the good ideas that appears in the film are halted immediately entering the film's final act. Suddenly this movie becomes dull, lifeless, needlessly dark and practically another story rather than an ending to the one we've been watching to this point. I also didn't like the narration from Mattie Ross's older self, as I thought it was unnecessary and didn't add anything to the story. The ending of the original film might have been a bit hokey, but at least it was a satisfying conclusion, of which we have none here. Even more than the aforementioned No Country for Old Men, the film ends in a most unsavory manner, upending all the good that had happened before it.

"I'm just going to close my eyes now. You just keep on talking"
Of course, unlike that somewhat overrated 2008 film, True Grit was snubbed completely at this year's Golden Globe nominations, despite overwhelming critical acclaim. While Bridges should probably still be recognized for his performance of the legendary US Marshall, it's hard to argue with the results. To be completely honest, True Grit didn't need to be remade, and while the slick modern camerawork, excellent acting by Bridges, good performances by everybody else, and tremendous storytelling all come together for a true visual experience for much of the film, it's the depressingly poor ending that ruins that same experience for us the viewers. When you look at the films instead being nominated for the Best Picture category - The Fighter, Black Swan, The King's Speech, Inception and even The Social Network - I would be severely hard-pressed to argue any of these out to make room for True Grit, especially when I feel The Town was a superior film that had been snubbed. Another disappointment from the Coen Brothers, from whom I haven't seen a truly enjoyable film in years, and who will have to perhaps go back to their roots to rediscover what made their earlier films so great. In the end, while John Wayne may no longer be the definitive Rooster Cogburn, his 1969 film is still the definitive True Grit.


THE Real Estate Analyst!!! said...

Bravo ... wonderful writing again. Dad

Sam said...

It IS a wonderful review - in many ways, the strongest one you've ever done - but you're still MAD. MAD, I tell you!

There's PLENTY of bastard in Wayne's version, but there's no pointless nihilism of the type the Coen Brothers so relish. It's like you say: the movie didn't need a remake.

I'm curious, though: did seeing this version (or the original) make you want to read the book?

Sam said...

(again, not really Sam... wish I could remember how to sign in as myself ...)

Gianni said...

I would be all for reading the book at this point. It's a great story and I think I would enjoy reading it, though at this point I pretty much know the story itself pretty thoroughly, so the writing would have to be damned good to keep my attention.

brian said...

I think the movie you watched had a different ending than the version I saw. Are you referring to the part about "little blackie" or the part involving Cole Younger and Frank James? Loved the movie...and I'm pretty sure Sam (Steve?) hasn't seen it (the reference to "pointless nihilism", a common criticism of the Coens, gives him away). This movie was full of heart.

Oh, and 'No Country' rules!