Saturday, August 16, 2014

Stubs – True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010) Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld. Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Screenplay by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Based on the novel True Girt by Charles Portis. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin Run time 110 minutes. USA. Color. Western, Drama, Comedy

It is not often a remake is better than the original. All too often what was made as a statement film is remade solely for the money. The Post Man Always Rings Twice is an example that remake does not equal better. But there are exceptions: The Maltese Falcon was made three times before they got it right in 1941 and made a classic. True Grit is another example. Originally made in 1969, the first True Grit starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby. And while John Wayne won Best Actor, it was one of those occasions when the Award was given not so much for a particular performance, but for an actor’s entire career. Wayne appeared in 170 movies and was only nominated twice for his acting.

The Coen brothers, who had made a name for themselves making well-crafted, but quirky movies, such as Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1989), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007) turned their attention to remake True Grit, but wanted to more closely adapt the original novel. [The brothers had expressed a similar desire to remake Mildred Pierce (1945) since the film itself was very different than the James M. Cain novel.]

Charles Portis’ 1969 novel, True Grit, a first-person account about tracking down and killing her father’s murderer, is considered by many to be a great American novel. Compared favorably to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, the novel is described as funny, epic and original. So much of which was missing from the 1969 film, which features the “stunt” casting of the then popular singer Glen Campbell in a significant part.

The Coen brothers’ film is narrated by Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel), who opens the film with the death of her father. She explains that her father was murdered by one of his hired hands, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) when she was a 14-year-old girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld.

Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

While collecting her father's body in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Mattie queries the local Sheriff there (Leon Russom) about the search for Chaney. He tells her that Chaney’s fled and is probably with "Lucky" Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang in the Indian Territory, where the Sheriff has no authority. She asked about a U.S. Marshall, and while the Sheriff mentions the grit of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) he actually recommends another Marshall who is known for bringing in his man alive. But Mattie opts for Cogburn, whom she chases down to an outhouse and later to court where he is testifying about another crime.

Mattie finally chases Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) down at a courthouse.

Cogburn, who has only one eye, rebuffs her offer, not believing she has the reward money to hire him. She raises the money by aggressively horse-trading with Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), who had sold her father some horses, which she convinces him to take back.

Mattie raises the money she needs to pay Cogburn by out horse-trading a horse trader.

Meanwhile, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger, arrives in town. He is chasing Chaney for the murder of a Texas State Senator. LaBoeuf proposes to team up with Cogburn, who knows the Indian Territory where Chaney is thought to be hiding. The reward back in Texas for Chaney is quite high and the two men decide to split it. But Mattie refuses his offer, not wanting Chaney to be hanged in Texas when she wants the punishment carried out in Arkansas for her father's murder. Further, Mattie insists on traveling with Cogburn. She goes back to Stonehill, who wants nothing more than to get rid of her than deal anymore with her. But when she rides over to the Chinese Grocery where Cogburn lives, the grocer, Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), tells her that Cogburn has left without her. Mattie takes chase following Cogburn and LaBoeuf to the river.

Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) joins the chase for Chaney.

But she is refused passage and the ferryman (Ty Mitchell) tries to take her back to town as a runaway. Mattie manages to get out of his grasp and crosses the river on horseback. LaBoeuf is fed up with Mattie and takes a switch to her until Cogburn intercedes.

Later, the two men have a falling out over which side they were on and their activities during the Civil War. Cogburn ends the relationship and LaBoeuf rides off.

There is a bit of comedic relief in the proceedings when Rooster and Mattie arrive at a general store to ask about Chaney. Two children are out in front of the store bothering an animal, which Cogburn puts a stop to and then proceeds to kick the kids off the porch, not only on his way in but also on the way out. This is a good example of the kind of character Cogburn is. He has a rough exterior, but a soft side as well, but he won’t take guff from anyone, even a child. Cogburn does learn that Chaney is with Pepper.

They come across a man who has been hung quite high in a tree. Rooster has Mattie climb up to see if it’s Chaney. It is quite perilous, but Mattie does climb up and when it’s not Chaney, Rooster has her cut the body down to see if it is someone he knows. It is not. An Indian comes along the trail and takes the body to see if he can trade it.

Later, they hear a shot in the distance. Mattie learns that Rooster had asked the Indian to signal him if someone was following them. Thinking that it’s LaBouef, they wait for him to catch up. Instead, it appears that a bear is riding towards them, but it turns out to be a backwoods doctor (Ed Lee Corbin) dressed in a bearskin with the head still on. He is pulling another horse with the same body Mattie had cut down, having just traded for it with an Indian.

Here's something you don't see every day, a Bear riding
a horse. Actually, it's a Doctor (Ed Lee Corbin) in a bearskin.

Cogburn tells them they need shelter and the good doctor directs them to an empty dugout for shelter. The owner is out hunting and won’t mind it being used. However, when they arrive, they find two men are already inside. When Cogburn tries to find out who they are, there is a gunfight and Cogburn, with Mattie’s help, literally smokes them out. The two turn out to be outlaws, Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) and Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), the latter of whom has been shot. Rooster tries to interrogate them and Moon seems to be acquiescing in exchange for promised medical aide. But Quincy pulls out a knife from his boot and cuts off several of Moon’s fingers before fatally stabbing the young man. Cogburn shoots Quincy dead. Before he dies, Moon tells Cogburn that Pepper and his gang are due back later that night.

Cogburn dispatches two outlaws in a cabin.

Cogburn and Mattie retreat into the hill behind the dugout to wait. But before Pepper returns, LaBoeuf arrives. He has an altercation with the gang and has a rope thrown around him and is dragged across the ground. Rooster shoots down from his perch and kills two of the four gang members, but Pepper escapes.

LaBouef nearly loses his tongue after an altercation with Pepper's gang.

Rooster tends to LaBoeuf’s injuries, including his tongue which has been nearly bitten through. Rooster offers to pull it out, but LaBoeuf desperately convinces him to let it heal. The next day, the men get into another fight and LaBoeuf again departs.

The next morning, while getting water from a nearby stream, Mattie sees Chaney on the far bank watering some horses. He recognizes her and talks to her like nothing had happened. She pulls out a gun and shoots him, but he is only wounded and takes her by force back to Ned Pepper, who forces Cogburn to leave by threatening to kill her. Cogburn seemingly obeys and is seen riding over the ridge. Ned doesn’t intend to hurt Mattie, but he is short a horse and leaves Mattie in Chaney’s care, ordering him not to harm her or he will not get paid after his remount arrives.

Mattie accidentally comes across Chaney (Josh Brolin), but she fails to kill him.

Chaney disobeys Ned and tries to kill Mattie, but LaBoeuf appears out of nowhere and knocks Chaney out. He tells Mattie that he rode back when he heard the shots and he and Cogburn devised a plan. They watch from a cliff as Cogburn takes on the remaining members of Ned's gang, riding with the bridle between his teeth and shooting with two guns. Cogburn kills two and wounds Ned, before his horse is struck and falls, trapping Cogburn's leg. LaBoeuf, from his perch four hundred yards away, shoots and kills Ned before he can kill Cogburn. But before they can celebrate, Chaney regains consciousness and knocks LaBoeuf out with a rock.

Cogburn rides straight at four members of Ned Pepper's gang.

Mattie seizes LaBoeuf's rifle from Chaney’s grip and shoots him dead in the chest. The recoil, however, knocks her into a deep pit. Cogburn arrives, but Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake before he can get to her. Cogburn cuts into her wound to suck out as much of the venom as he can before LaBoeuf helps them out. Cogburn rides day and night to get Mattie to a doctor until the horse collapses from exhaustion. After that, he carries her on foot until he too collapses, but he does manage to get her aid.

Cogburn rides day and night to take Mattie to a doctor after she gets bitten by a snake.

The story jumps forwards twenty-five years later; Mattie (Ruth Morris) reveals her left forearm was amputated due to gangrene from the snakebite. Cogburn stayed with her until she was out of danger, but left before she regained consciousness. She never saw Cogburn again, despite a letter she wrote to him inviting him to visit and to collect the $50 she still owed him. Later she received a note from Cogburn inviting her to meet him at a traveling Wild West show he performs in, headlined by outlaws Cole Younger (Don Pirl) and Frank James (James Brolin). When she arrives, Younger tells her that Cogburn died three days earlier.

25 years later, Mattie (Ruth Morris), recreates the train ride that opened the film.

She has his body moved to her family cemetery. Standing over Cogburn's grave, she reflects on her decision to move his remains and the scandal it caused. She also reveals that she never saw LaBoeuf again, though she would like to, and observes that "time just gets away from us".

While Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon were the stars of the film, Hailee Steinfeld makes the biggest impression. Steinfeld was not new to acting, having appeared on TV and in short films prior, but her turn as Mattie in True Grit certainly put her on the map. Her career is still ongoing, having appeared most recently in Ender’s Game (2013) and Hateship, Loveship (2014).

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in True Grit.

It seems unfair to compare the acting of any of the 2010 stars to their 1969 counterparts. While John Wayne was one of the biggest stars to ever come out of Hollywood, he is not, perhaps unfairly, considered a great actor. Towards the end of his career, he seemed to be playing versions of his Duke persona for which Rooster Cogburn is a variant.

John Wayne and Jeff Bridges both played Rooster Cogburn.

Bridges, on the other hand, is thought of as one of the better actors of his generation, having played a wide variety of film roles. He gives a big performance for the larger than life Cogburn, a drunkard Marshal who rises to the occasion when required. He uses his position as a U.S. Marshal to seek his own kind of justice in the backwoods of the American frontier.

Likewise, Matt Damon’s acting has it all over Glen Campbell’s, whose casting in the original film version seemed a bit of stunt casting at the time, based on Campbell’s popularity as a pop/country singer. Damon easily acts circles around him, giving his LaBouef several layers that were missing from Campbell’s portrayal.

It should be noted that while Elizabeth Marvel narrates the film, she is doubled on screen by Ruth Morris, who was born without a left forearm. Morris receives more screen time than Marvel.

While I would not recommend the 1969 True Grit to anyone who is not a huge John Wayne fan, True Grit (2010) has a wider appeal. This seems to be a case where filmmaker and source material line up beautifully. The Coen Brother’s eccentricities seem to fit well with the Portis story. True Grit is not your standard Western tale and this movie does not try to make it fit squarely into that genre, the way the 1969 True Grit film tried to. This time around, the remake improved how the story was told and is a far better film.

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