Category Archives: coen brothers

The End of the Western

When I heard that they were remaking True Grit I was very conflicted. The original True Grit – the one with John Wayne’s first Oscar, Kim Darby playing much younger than usual, and nowhere near as annoying as usual, non-actor Glen Campbell and his terrific title song, along with Robert Duvall and the late Dennis Hopper – that movie is a classic, and I love it. It’s in my top twenty movies of all-time, and my favorite western, period. There’s no way a remake could do it justice.

And then I heard who was doing it. I also love the Coen brothers. Ethan and Joel are among the best filmmakers of our time. The problem is that as absolutely brilliant as they are, the Coen brothers unfortunately can be hit or miss. For every Big Lebowski and O Brother, there’s a Ladykillers and Burn After Reading. While I can’t think of anyone better to remake it if it had to be remade… it still bugged me. Why did it need to be remade anyway? I just bet if they released the original to the theaters, it would be doing just as well as this new one.

The story, based on the novel by Charles Portis, in which the lead character was incidentally based on John Wayne, has young girl Mattie Ross seeking revenge on Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. To this end she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Fourteen year-old and age-appropriate to the story, Hailee Steinfeld shines as Mattie Ross. I might even see an Oscar nod in her future she’s so good, and a far cry from Kim Darby. The problem is that’s about the only advantage this remake has over the original.

The number one problem is that the Coen brothers have clearly forgotten what makes a western a western. The western is a great American artform which has over the last three or four decades been forgotten in favor of the grim, gritty realism of what the old West may have really been. Like the concepts of cyberpunk, and rocketships and rayguns, this may have not been how it was, it is how it is done. Westerns have sweeping panoramic landscapes, big orchestral soundtracks, hokey country title songs and reasonable hygienic cowboys who are easily identifiable as the good guys and the bad guys. The new True Grit has none of these things.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing realism, nor am I dissing terrific stuff like “Deadwood” or Unforgiven, it’s just that not all westerns have to be like that. One critic said of Unforgiven that it was a proper eulogy for the American western. If that’s so, then the Coen’s True Grit is the final nail in that coffin. Any of the old timey brightness mentioned above that signify the westerns of old could have saved this flick in my opinion.

The movie is also very slow, a cardinal sin when it comes to action flicks of any genre, but that’s not where the rest of the problems lie – that would be in casting. As I said, Steinfeld is fine, and may yet be headed for Oscar-land, and Josh Brolin almost makes up for Jonah Hex as Tom Chaney, but the two male leads are near disastrous.

Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf is two-dimensional and boring, and when he does break free from the cardboard, he is more than a little bit creepy, especially in his interactions with his fourteen year-old employer. It was just a touch too much “To Catch a Predator” for me. Jeff Bridges is most unsatisfying filling the Duke’s shoes as Rooster Cogburn. He is neither heroic nor charismatic, or even interesting. He also mumbles and grumbles throughout, as if he had taken Batman lessons from Christian Bale. Honestly, if he had done The Dude in this flick like he did in Tron: Legacy, it would have been more tolerable.

I am stunned that this is on several folks’ top ten lists for 2010. I can only imagine they haven’t seen the original. I can only recommend this new True Grit as a curiosity or to see Hailee Steinfeld’s performance. I did not like it. See the original version, it’s far superior.

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