I may again have to eat my words. I’ve often lamented that the advent of remade films in the last decade signifies the death of creativity. Doing something ‘again’ is for the theatre; films can simply be played again, so there’s no point, and you should put your energy into making new ones. Well, now Joel and Ethan Coen have done it, and it is yet another remake of a film that I think is entirely worthy of the treatment. What’s worse is that having enjoyed this film so much, I may now have to watch a few Westerns to find out whether this really is one.
True Grit was first made in 1969. It is the story of a fourteen year old girl who seeks to revenge for her father’s murder and goes looking for a man of ‘true grit’ to undertake the fearsome task. She finds the same in Sheriff ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a disreputable man with a drinking problem and a dislike for the one other person who cares about seeing the murderer hang. And so begins a journey into the Arkansas wilderness, and the wilderness of human emotions.
Firmly ensconced within the Coens’ aesthetic oeuvre, this film is something really special. Despite being weighed down by overly loquacious and rather pretentious dialogue (which I think may be the norm for Westerns), the story hums along with engaging characters and a beautiful vision of Winter in the old west. Rather than soaking in a puddle of sentimentality, though, it explores the complexity of human emotions in the wake of life-changing events. In this, it diverges from what I had thought Westerns were all about. I understood them to be simplified and over-emotional excuses for a bit of gun-slinging; True Grit is nothing of the sort. I may just have to watch a few to see if I need to rethink my assumptions!
An ageing Matt Damon is an excellent foil for an old Jeff Bridges, but neither hold a candle to Hailee Steinfeld who gives a commanding performance as the ineffable Mattie Ross seeking vengeance for her father’s death. The casting and execution of this role was surely critical to the success of this film, and Steinfeld really carries both the plot and the substance of the story.
Now, I’ve hardly seen any Westerns in my time, and have never been a fan of the genre (not that I’m a fan of any genre per se), so I can’t comment on whether this is a reinvigoration of a tired genre of film-making, but it certainly is a fine piece of cinematography. It is, perhaps, the best film I’ve seen from the Coen Brothers, and that is really something.