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True Grit (2010)

With the impeccable sense of timing for which I am rightly famous around the world, I chose to see True Grit on the day that, despite its ten nominations, it failed to win a single Oscar. This unfortunate coincidence does, however, give me the chance to think about why there should have been so much expectation and then so much disappointment.

 

Well, I start with the admission that I paid to see the original version with John Wayne when it first came out back in 1969. Despite being an avid reader, I never have bothered opening the novel on which both film versions are based. I guess Charles Portis did a good job since it not only rode high on the best-seller lists, but also paid off in the cinemas. But reading Westerns has never been my thing (although I do confess to ploughing through several — as a Will F Jenkins completist when I was younger, I did try one or two just to see how awful they were). The one thing you will always remember from the original film version is John Wayne’s star quality. He was unbeatable as the old, optically challenged and overweight marshal (notice how they changed the eye when Jeff Bridges stepped into the role). That said, the film itself wallows in sentimentality. Here’s this fourteen year old girl out for vengeance who not only get the chance to draw a bead on the man who done for her father, but also gets bit by a rattler and has to be rescued by the curmudgeon with a heart of gold, John Wayne. For the record I never liked Kim Darby’s performance and was less than impressed by Glen Campbell, a singer moonlighting as an actor.

 

All of which leads to the question: what in tarnation was those Cohen boys thinking, remaking True Grit? Of all the films seen in all the towns, in all the world, they have to pick a classic John Wayne film. My first reaction when hearing the news was that this was another unnecessary film. It was never the greatest film in the world and saved from oblivion only by Wayne’s performance — nominated the last time only so that the Academy could give a final recognition to Wayne for all his years of service. But curiosity got the better of me so I paid out my money to see “it” again. I suppose I was daring it to be as good.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld

 

Well, I will give credit where credit is due. The cast is a mile better than in the original. Jeff Bridges manages not to be John Wayne in a positive way and Hailee Steinfeld is a real find as Mattie Ross. The frontier would always have thrown up precocious children like her and the chance to see her at the end is wonderful confirmation of how she will come out of the mould when turning into an adult. Matt Damon does well in the thankless role of LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin’s cameo as Tom Chaney is as good as they get. This rebalances the film. The original is a star vehicle for John Wayne with the others tagging along in his wake. In some senses, this is Mattie Ross taking the lead. She frames the beginning with her horse-trading and at the end. . . Instead of Wayne making that final victory jump over the fence, we have the self-righteous spinster walking off into the sunset. And, in a sense, that’s the key difference between the new and the old. This is significantly less sentimental. We see the girl’s burning desire for revenge with Cogburn nothing more than a marauder with a badge. The change is signalled early on. The first version is full of sun-dappled landscapes. This has snow falling and bitter temperatures. This is the difference between a slight feeling of romanticised fantasy in the original, and a more unforgiving and threatening landscape where people who do not pay attention find death waiting for them.

Matt Damon and Josh Brolin

 

Having taken a moment to think about the new, I offer reasons for its failure to secure any Oscars to go with the nominations. Firstly, this always was a rather slight story. In both cases, it’s the acting that lifts the plodding plot. Except, without the feel-good sentimentality of John Wayne’s final performance to inspire the voters, we are left with the same old problems. LaBoeuf remains a convenient deus ex machina who looks to be leaving only to magically reappear when the time comes to save the other two. And why the natural survivor, Ned Pepper played by Barry Pepper, must be a villain who has a sense of honour when it comes to Cogburn and the girl has always baffled me. Any self-respecting outlaw, shoots the girl and rides away as fast as possible in the opposite direction. This four-on-one shoot-out always was pure hokum for the set-piece at the end. Seeing it stripped down with the snow falling takes the romantic edge away from the original meadow scene with the camera getting elevation to show the showdown at its most inspiring angles. In the real Wild West, it would all have come down to who could bushwhack whom first. Cogburn was always Quantrill’s man and would never have acted with such reckless disregard for his own safety unless he had read the script first.

 

Finally, the character of Mattie Ross is redefined as an almost totally unsympathetic vigilante. She’s as wantonly vicious and cruel as those she chases, being prepared to shoot to kill when given half the chance. It’s slightly ironic the Cohens show her at the end. This frames her as a cold-blooded killer walking away into an empty future. Despite her smug self-righteousness, I hope she punishes herself. Not everyone can live comfortably with the lie of self-defence when they have chased so hard after their victims. In their defence, Cogburn and LaBoeuf want to save her from herself and send her back. But, with her horse’s help, she’s able to demonstrate her absolute determination to be in at the kill. What can they do but shrug and let her become a killer like them?

 

So I was less than impressed by the remake. It was a good try and stripping away all that sentimentality makes a big improvement. But it remains an unnecessary film about murder. With all their talent, it’s a tragedy the Cohens, Ethan and Joel decided to forget everything that has made their films so consistently watchable over the years. Hopefully, they will go back to what they are good at with an original story that fits their inimitable style. I wish them better luck with the Oscars of the future.

 

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