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True Grit

A movie directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

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Grittier than thou

  • Feb 8, 2011
  • by
Rating:
+5
Our Christmas movie this year was True Grit, which we saw in the late show Christmas night just before the first Christmas snow in Raleigh in 60 years shut down the town.  We followed that up with a viewing (my first!) of the 1969 original starring John Wayne and Glenn Campbell.

I recently read and reviewed Charles Portis's novel, which I rated +5 for Mattie Ross's spare language of guarded emotion that tells us more about her than pages of florid description and omniscient thought ever could.   How do the movies fare?

Well, the +5 rating here is for the Coen Brothers perfect capture of Mattie's soul. I rate the 1969 movie +4, primarily for John Wayne's powerful star turn, which frankly surprised me.  I have always thought that John Wayne is less an actor than a star playing himself, and expected that if nothing else the new movie would be better because Jeff Bridges would play a grittier, more realistic Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne.  While John Wayne may be playing himself here, he does it better than anyone else, and surprisingly I liked him better than Bridges.  There are degrees of better, for different reasons that don't always make rational sense, and that certainly applies here.  

But the world has changed much in 41 years in how we live, how we think, and how we capture it in art, and that makes the CB version in my view a better movie, based on

Technical differences

The 1969 Grit is saddled with
  • Colorado location shooting with tall angular snow capped peaks that don't look like the Arkansas settings described in the book.
  • day-for-night filming that renders scenes that should have been dark and foreboding but are left bathed in obvious filtered sunlight with bright, clear-blue skies less obscured than emphasized by the day-for-night shooting.
There were "rules" about what a "Western" was supposed to look like in 1969, and the 69 Grit followed those rules.  The Coen Brothers (with long-time cameraman Roger Deakins) take full advantage of the technical possibilities of modern film making to create starkly reaistic settings bathed in glorious sharp-edged darkness.  One scene in particular stands out for me:  Cogburn racing Mattie toward help against the gathering darkness in the climax of the movie as they ride into a wall of dark forest that threatens to engulf the actors, the audience as participants, and the hope of all of us against the oncoming darkness. 

Cultural differences

Just as there were rules in 1969 about what a Western looked like, there were rules about what a Western could be about., and this shows up in different ways that handicap the 69 Grit.
  • Westerns could not be about a strong-willed, independent woman with controlled emotions, and they certainly weren't based on a narrative written by such a woman as she remembered events that happened when she was a 14-year-old girl managing her families affairs in the aftermath of her father's murder. It is for this reason, I believe, that the 69 Grit ignores the narrative framework of the novel, a decision which  forces the screenplay to "write around" the coda with the adult Mattie that wraps up the lose ends of her adventure in the book, and leaves the ending of the 1969 movie much weaker as a result.  Conversely, the Coen Brother's ending is faithful to the book, and is a literally picture-perfect piece of cinematic artistry.  
  • This cultural roadblock also effects the way Mattie is portrayed in the screenplay.  Unable to accept or even understand a girl of Mattie's age with her iron will and leadership abilities, the 69 Grit is forced to makes her both more childlike and dependent on Cogburn (while the novel's Mattie is clearly--in her narration at least--in charge of every situation up to the climax) and more emotional (weeping over her father's effects).  This is not a knock on Kim Darby's depiction of Mattie in the 69 Grit, but a telling cultural marker of its times (which were soon to change).
  • Westerns were stirring tales of heroes in white hats,   The audience knew the good guys would win, but just to help us understand the flow of the action, the background music score would punch home the rising action and darken the crises with foreboding music.  Unlike John Wayne's acting performance, this use of music really has not worn well.  its melodramatic rises, falls, and swoops actively detract from the movie on the screen.   Carter Burwell, the Coen Brothers long-time music director, has scored the new film with understated hymns (viewers familiar with Protestant church music will hear strains of "Leaning On the Everylasting Arms throughout), rising to frame the ending shot in an aural match to the picture perfect ending of the movie.

None of this is to denigrate the 69 Grit.  Other than the alterations I mentioned above, it is faithful to the book and includes more episodes from the book unchanged or compressed than does the new movie,  It is clear that the Coen Brothers had read the screen play of the original, and both reuse and pay homage to much of the great dialogue from the book and the original movie.  And of course, there's always that John Wayne performance that so many fans of the Western loved unreservedly in 1969 and continue to consider, rightly so, a classic in his career and of the genre.  The 69 Grit deserves its +4 rating. 

But the Coen Brothers apply their mind-meld film making ability to make an update that captures the heart and soul of Mattie Ross in an equally-classic +5 movie, taking full advantage of the technical and cultural background of 2010 to bring art to the genre and the story. 

As an addendum to this review, two things remain to be considered:
  1. Where does True Grit stand in the Coen Brothers filmography?  Following in the path of No Country for Old Men, it is based on a screenplay adapted from an existing novel.  Following in the path of Fargo, it is dominated by a strong independent woman.  I would place it just behind those two movies as close to their very best, and just ahead of the next tier of their movies such as A Serious Man and Millers Crossing.. 
  2. Since watching the two movies in the last 24 hours, we have had a lively debate in our family about how the movies handled the relationship between Mattie and La Boeuf (Glen Campbell in the 69 Grit, Matt Damon in the new version).   In the book and both movies, La Boeuf says that he is tempted to steal a kiss from Mattie but finds her unattractive and irritating enough to spank her with a switch, to which Mattie responds that each alternative would be equally repelling to her.  In the 69 Grit, a Texas sweetheart La Boeuf 

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More True Grit reviews
review by . December 23, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
I have no idea how many times I have stated the rules for filming a movie that remakes an iconic original. Well, if you’re one of those folks who’ve never read any of my reviews before, they are quite simple: 1) It must broaden the scope that is covered by the original film while adapting it for a much more modern audience. 2) It must follow the essence and the spirit of the said material (in this case the book). 3) It should pay homage to the source material and/or the original film.   …
review by . December 26, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Our Christmas movie this year was True Grit, which we saw in the late show Christmas night just before the first Christmas snow in Raleigh in 60 years shut down the town.  We followed that up with a viewing (my first!) of the 1969 original starring John Wayne and Glenn Campbell.      I recently read and reviewed Charles Portis's novel, which I rated +5 for Mattie Ross's spare language of guarded emotion that tells us more about her than pages of florid description …
review by . January 15, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Nothing in this world is free… except the grace of God.
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review by . February 15, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
***1/2 out of ****     "True Grit" is the latest offering from the legendary geniuses that are the Coen Brothers, and upon finishing the film, I can't help but admit that I was indeed quite "wowed". I went into this film expecting no particularly big surprises; and left feeling provoked and shocked by just how different this film was; at least from what I expected it to be. But the second adaptation of "True Grit" is still a damn good one, and in a number of ways, I enjoy it …
review by . January 24, 2011
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The Coen Brothers are not usually known for doing purely genre films.  There's usually a semblance of several genres mixed together when they do a film.  To see them do a purely western is something of a curiosity.  After all, there are reasons why a western, of all genres, might turn heads.  In the first place, it has been years since a fantastic western actually showed up in theaters (perhaps the last truly good one was the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma), but more than that... …
review by . December 27, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
   If you had asked me a month, maybe even a couple of weeks ago what my favorite film of the year was going to be, without hesitation I would have said Christopher Nolan’s Inception. I knew that Tron Legacy and True Grit were coming up, and I had a feeling that the latter had a good chance of making my top ten or even my top five, but I had no idea it had this great of a chance. In fact, it might just be giving Inception a good run for its money. This is one of my favorites of …
review by . December 30, 2010
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   The Western genre is a perennial of American cinema. Sometimes very popular, sometimes just sort of “there”, but never going away. In recent years we’ve seen Westerns like Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma, both of which are great examples of what the genre can do when it’s being worked by someone who really knows what they’re doing. Now to this list we can add True Grit, directed by the Coen Brothers. As with their other films, it’s not just a fine example …
review by . December 26, 2010
14-year-old Mattie Ross has come to Ft. Smith Arkansas sometime during the "old west" to hire a US Marshall to track and bring to justice the man who shot and killed her father. She hires the man she's been told has true grit, Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, a one-eyed drunk with a ferocious reputation. They set out for the Indian Territories, accompanied, to their chagrin, by the dandified Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. Along the way, they encounter some strange characters and engage in dangerous and bloody adventures. &nbs …
review by . December 20, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The Coen Brothers know their way around a film. That much has been established over the years. And after a few films that were not seen by too many, they return to the West, but this time around with the clock set back a few years.      True Grit is based of the 1968 novel of the same name. And while it shares its source material with the 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar, it would be unfair to call this a remake. Lost is the tone of the previous film, it loses …
review by . June 09, 2011
Less than a year after the initial publication of Charles Portis' second and finest novel, the popular film adaptation of True Grit was released, marketed as another of far too many John Wayne vehicles. In spite of the film's success and enduring popularity, admirers of the harsh, blackly comic novel can easily recognize it as an insincere, sanitized crowd-pleaser. Wayne played tough-as-nails U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn exactly as he would any other character, his performance as by-the-numbers …
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Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #37
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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True Grit is an upcoming 2010 Western film, written and directed by the Coen brothers and starring Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin and Matt Damon. The film is an adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis which was previously adapted for film in 1969. Filming began on March 2010 with an anticipated release date of December 25, 2010.
 
Bridges will play U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn. The character was portrayed by John Wayne in the 1969 film, a performance which earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor.
 
Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl, undertakes a quest to avenge her father's death at the hands of a drifter named Tom Chaney. Ross persuades an alcoholic marshal named Rooster Cogburn to join her in tracking down Chaney.
 
Ethan Coen said that the film will be a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the 1969 version.
 
“             It's partly a question of point-of-view. The book is entirely in the voice of the 14-year-old girl. That sort of tips the feeling of it over a certain way. I think [the book is] much funnier than the movie was so I think, unfortunately, they lost a lot of humour in both the situations and in her voice. It also ends differently than the movie did. You see the main character — the little girl — 25 years later when she's an adult. Another way in which it's a little bit different from the movie — and maybe this ...
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Details

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Western
Release Date: 22 December 2010 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 110 min
Studio: Paramount Pictures
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