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WGUC Reviews

True Grit

True Grit
Paramount Pictures
Rated PG-13
Now Showing at: most major theaters.
Review by: Larry Thomas

Many moviegoers complain “why do they always remake good movies if they’re good anyway?” And generally, they’re right. One of the exceptions to that theory is the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit. It might have seemed sacrilege to remake the film that earned John Wayne his Oscar, and was a huge box office hit. But when filmmakers with the talent and vision of the Coens set out to do something, they usually hit the mark.

In this version they stay closer to the original Charles Portis novel, and frame it as a darker, more sinister tale, as opposed to a rousing sixties star vehicle. If you were to compare it to another Coen Brothers film, it has the look and texture of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, but True Grit also keeps the humor and heart of the Wayne version.

The casting is perfect. Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is a better role for, and performance from, last year’s Oscar winner. If Bridges didn’t already have a statue for Crazy Heart, then he would be a front-runner for True Grit. Using Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBeouf is a big step up. He plays him as a self-centered, know-it-all braggart who is, underneath it all, a real human being. Josh Brolin is also terrific as Tom Chaney, the subject of the manhunt. He’s got meanness in his eyes and will stop at nothing. Brolin keeps getting better with each film, and gets extra points for accepting such a small role and infusing it with such a memorable performance. 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld is a true revelation as Mattie Ross, the young girl out to avenge the murder of her father. She lights up the screen in every scene in this star-making role. With some experience in television and short films behind her, her first feature film role is a home run for her career.

I watched the John Wayne True Grit two or three weeks ago as a refresher, and was surprised to find that much of the dialogue in the original was kept in the update. The big difference in the script is how the Coens approach the period of the late 1880s. In these days of informality, and Twittering, and slang, we tend to forget that people talked, and wrote, in a more formal style back then. There are no contractions; it’s all “I shall go” or “You do not dare.” It almost sounds funny to our 21st century ears to hear people talk like that, but the style is more forceful, reminding us that once upon a time, people meant what they said, and they were easily understood.

I love Elmer Bernstein’s film scores, so I have no problem with his rousing sixties-style western themes. Instead of trying to replicate or imitate, composer Carter Burwell has added another of the touches that helps make this True Grit a different film. His score is low-key, almost mournful, relying on the classic hymn tune “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” for his theme and variations. That song was incredibly effective in 1955 when Robert Mitchum crooned it as an anthem of menace and murder in Charles Laughton’s great The Night of the Hunter. Here, it’s used instrumentally… save for a vocal version over the end credits…as something comforting and hopeful. There are also a couple of scenes that struck me as a nod to The Night of the Hunter, which were much appreciated.

For once, it’s a pleasure to be able to praise what’s considered a “remake” instead of being aghast at the sacrilege. True Grit is not only a masterful effort of writing, directing, acting, and composing, but it is, to me, the best film of the year.

The PG-13 rated True Grit is now playing pretty much everywhere. It should be your first choice when you next venture out to see a movie. Imagine if you will, a film written by Mark Twain and directed by John Ford. Yes… True Grit is that good.


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