2010 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: True Grit

Personally I feel there are not enough Westerns in the movies nowadays. True Grit is a remake of a past movie starring John Wayne in 1969.With remakes, there’s always a question of will it succeed or will it fail to stack up to the original? Also a question for remaking is if the Coen Brothers are an ideal fit for direction. To the surprise of many,  the Coen brothers do their own version of the movie with excellent results.

The movie is told through the adult Mattie Ross. When she was fourteen, her father was murdered by hired hand Chaney who also made off with his horses and two California gold pieces. Mattie pursues a US Marshall to track down Chaney. Of the three choices, she chooses Rooster Cogburn because he’s the most merciless: with ‘true grit’.

Cogburn frequently rejects Mattie’s requests to be hired. At the boarding house where Mattie is staying, she meets Texas Ranger Laboeuf who is pursuing Chaney for his own reason: a murder in Texas. He proposes that he, Mattie and Rooster team up in pursuit because they know of his whereabouts in Chocktaw terrain. Mattie rejects because he wants Chaney tried for the crimes against her, instead of against Laboeuf. After Cogburn finally agrees, he tells Mattie to meet him in the morning to start the pursuit, only to leave Mattie behind with a note saying he’s after Chaney and for her to go home.

Despite it all, Mattie is determined to catch up to Laboeuf and Cogburn. She even rides her swimming horse across the river when refused onto a ferry. Upon learning the two men plan to split the reward, Mattie threatens Cogburn with arrest for fraud because the agreement was that she come with them.  He reluctantly allows Mattie to come along but Laboeuf disagrees and splits to pursue Chaney alone. Mattie and Cogburn spend overnight in an isolated shack, only to come across two outlaws who suddenly turn on each other. Cogburn kills the older outlaw and the dying younger outlaw reveals that ‘Lucky Ned’ Pepper were planning to return later that night. Cogburn and Mattie stay in the shack, expecting Chaney to be with Pepper’s gang.

Laboeuf however rides up to the shack ahead of the gang.  Once they arrive, they lasso him and drag him behind a horse. Cogburn then shoots three to death and accidentally wounds Laboeuf. He ends the night getting drunk on whiskey. The next night, he and Laboeuf have another argument and Laboeuf departs on his own again. The following morning, Mattie spots Chaney. She shoots Chaney but is unable to kill him. Chaney drags her back to the gang whom Ned plans to use as a hostage to get Cogburn to ride off. She’s hostile to Ned at first but calms down when he promises he doesn’t hurt children. Riding off to pursue Cogburn, Ned leaves Mattie in care of Chaney so that he can drop her off in a safe colonized land later.

Chaney does try to attack Mattie but Laboeuf knocks him out with his rifle end. He explains he encountered Cogburn the night before and hatched a plan. Both watch above a cliff as Cogburn takes on Ned and three other gang members. He shoots two dead and mortally wounds Ned, but his horse is shot from under him. As the dying Ned tries to shoot Cogburn, Laboeuf shoots Ned dead. Chaney tries to kill Laboeuf but Mattie shoots Chaney dead, only for the recoil to knock her into a rattlesnake-filled mineshaft where she is bitten in the arm. Cogburn rescues Mattie and carries her off for help. He arrives at a village late in the night and in time.

The movie fast forwards to Mattie: 25 years later and her bitten arm amputated from the acquired gangrene. She received an invitation from Cogburn to see him perform at a travelling Wild West show, only to learn at the site he died three days earlier. She has his body moved to the family plot. A final honor to the man that helped her.

The direction and writing of the Coen brothers is top notch. You’d think that doing a Western movie isn’t something to expect from the Coen brothers but they do a surprisingly excellent job. You could tell they put in a lot of detail into this. The movie captured the Wild West environment well. It portrayed the lawlessness of the times well. It also showed things like public hangings in excellent detail. Even the police system and courts of law were done to a tee. Those who never grew up during a time when Western movies were frequent would be surprised at the times and the happenings. Even frequent references to God in people’s speech would surprise many that these were a time when referring to God meant something.

As for the acting, Jeff Bridges did an excellent job as Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon did a good job with a pretty lightweight role as Laboeuf. However the true star of the movie has to be young Hailee Steinfeld. Although she’s nominated in the Supporting Actress category, there’s no question that she was the lead performance and she was excellent. While all the other adult characters were foolish, she was one that meant business and she could put those foolish adults to shame.

The technical aspects of the movie were also excellent. Roger Deakins always does a top job of cinematography and this was no exception. The sets, both natural and constructed, were top notch and fit the time frame well. Costuming was also top of the line. Carter Burwell’s music fit the movie perfectly. Overall this was a masterpiece of a Western.

Some people might compare this version to the original 1969 version, directed by Henry Hathaway and starred John Wayne and Glen Campbell. I don’t want to compare it with the original in terms of its quality. Some notable differences are: the new version left out the murder of Frank Ross at the hands of Chaney; Mattie is still fourteen in the original but is played by Kim Darby who was 20 at the time of filming Laboeuf dies from head injuries in the original; and Cogburn is still alive at the end of the original when he agrees to Mattie about being buried next to the Ross family plot. The most I’ll critique in terms of quality is say that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Interesting that the 1969 version wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and John Wayne won Best Actor.

The remake of True Grit goes above and beyond expectations. John Wayne fans may not be completely pleased but fans of Westerns will be delighted. The Coen brothers were given a heavy task when they took this on and they delivered.

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