Movies

Coens' "True Grit" Remake: Just as Good as Original

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by Tony Dayoub

Richard T. Jameson has an excellent piece up on his blog, Straight Shooting, entitled "also-true 'Grit'". You can (and most definitely should) read it for yourself, but in it he compares the new Coen Brothers film with Henry Hathaway's 1969 original. His conclusion:

So if I had to pick only one True Grit movie to take to the proverbial desert island, it'd be Hathaway's, Wayne's, Ballard's and, while we're at it, Elmer Bernstein's: that gentleman was Wayne's music scorer of choice in the Sixties, and the Bernstein sound laid over one of Lucien Ballard's high-country shots of quivering aspen and immeasurable, clear-air vastness imbues the moment with mystery. (The score of the 2010 version, by regular Coen collaborator Carter Burwell, runs variations on "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a folk hymn best known from Night of the Hunter.)

The beauty of it is, though, that we don't have to pick one True Grit. Both are worth having. We take for granted that any Coen picture is going to be a work of impeccable craftsmanship, and yes, Roger Deakins is at the camera once again. The brothers' fidelity to [Charles] Portis' novel not only honors a great literary achievement but also makes for a narrative with fascinating interruptions, digressions and enigmatic encounters - in short, storytelling of a perversity the Coens usually have to generate on their own.

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Like the book but unlike the 1969 movie, their True Grit has a narrator, Mattie, and keeps faith with her point of view. What she doesn't know, we don't know.

There are a few things I find particularly cogent about Jameson's review: his perceptive connecting of the Coens' True Grit to The Night of the Hunter; "What she doesn't know, we don't know..."; and, "The beauty of it is, though, that we don't have to pick one True Grit."

The Night of the Hunter has been referenced by the Coens before (most notably in Raising Arizona, where the knuckles of Randall "Tex" Cobb's apocalyptic biker are tattoed with the words "Love" and "Hate".) But in 2010's True Grit, besides the prominent piece of music Jameson refers to, we have a more pronounced stylistic choice which recalls Charles Laughton's famous film. One significant departure the new version takes from the old Hathaway film is its strict reliance on telling the story from the point of view of an elderly Mattie Ross as filtered through the compromised hindsight of memory.

True Grit's prologue, an impressionistic scene in a beautiful snowscape, depicts the murder of Mattie's father by a shadowy figure she identifies as Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). From there the Coens' movie treads along the same faithful path to Portis' book as the Hathaway picture did, for the most part (from what I hear, I admit I've never read it myself). Mattie hires a cantankerously lethal U.S. Marshal, the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to hunt Chaney down. LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with his own reasons to capture Chaney—alive—tags along. Ross insists on travelling with the two men to ensure Chaney is executed by Cogburn instead of arrested by LaBoeuf. As I said, all familiar to those who've seen the original Hathaway version (except for some interesting Coenesque digressions which I'll come back to)... that is, until its transcendent(al) climax.

At this point True Grit fully embraces the influence of The Night of the Hunter. When Mattie falls victim to a snakebite, Rooster picks her up onto her small horse, Little Blackie, and rides under a strikingly dreamy starry sky. Roger Deakins' surreal cinematography resembles the Expressionist stylings of Hunter's Stanley Cortez. Midway through that film as the children take flight from Robert Mitchum's evil preacher, it is as if they fall through Alice's rabbit hole into a nightmarish wonderland where the sky is blanketed with a multitude of stars, and giant animals surround them. Here, Mattie's memory, hobbled by the feverish effects of the venom, highlights the most distinct features of her experience, the giant faces of her black horse and the larger than life Cogburn against the starry black sky. This sequence ensconces the film in the pantheon of other movies which rely on the recollection of children, such as the aforementioned Hunter and Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Coens cast an actual thirteen-year-old, Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie Ross and never let up from presenting True Grit from her point of view, a notable difference from Hathaway's original adaptation in which the dual perspective of Ross and Cogburn is quite a bit more objective. In the Coens' film, "What she doesn't know, we don't know," and what we do know is filtered through the perfectly delineated mind of a young teen, something far more difficult to get across in Hathaway's film where Mattie was played by the talented, but twenty-one-year-old, Kim Darby.

When Steinfeld's Mattie first meets the handsome LaBoeuf, there is the mystique about him that might impress a young girl beginning to deal with the confusing feelings of emergent sexuality; he sits on a porch rocking back as he menacingly smokes a pipe, his spurs glistening in the light of dusk. The protective (and much older) Cogburn, dangerous as he is, provides a less threatening alternative, filling the vacancy left by her father. Perhaps it is her benign recollection of him which burnishes his questionable reputation. Or perhaps it is the solidarity forged by the strange digressions I mentioned earlier, interludes which she alone shares with Cogburn while LaBoeuf is elsewhere: an eerie encounter with a hanging corpse; a run-in with a mysterious trapper. (Although there is no embellishment, at least not a positive one, of Cogburn's feelings towards two Indian kids). And the film elides over the injured LaBoeuf's final fate after he helps raise the snakebit Mattie into Cogburn's arms so the marshal can rush her to safety. He lives in the Portis book and dies in the Hathaway film. Here, he is simply forgotten.

As Jameson states in his review, "The beauty of it is, though, that we don't have to pick one..." Interestingly, then, the Coens' True Grit can be viewed as complementary to the Hathaway version. Taken together, both films give us a well-rounded interpretation of the Portis book. Hathaway's is more complete, lengthier, surprisingly more nuanced when it comes to the motivations of Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and Chaney, because its perspective is from more of a remove than that of the Coens' film. The Coens' True Grit supplements Hathaway's by turning a simple story of revenge into a child's aggrandizement of a mercenary from flawed drunkard to heroic father figure (and maybe more the Coens' epilogue suggests). A remake which doesn't look to supplant the original film, but instead enhances it, proves there's room enough for two True Grits.