Saturday, February 12, 2011

Truer Grit

In 1903, forty year-old Mattie Ross takes a train trip to attend Cole Younger & Frank James' Wild West Show. She has travelled to Memphis, Tennessee from near Dardanelle in Yell County, Arkansas, at the invitation one of the troupe's lesser-known luminaries. Mattie has come to see a one-eyed former federal marshal named Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn.

When Mattie was fourteen years old, her father Frank was murdered by one of his employees while the two were on a trip to Fort Smith, to buy saddle horses. When Mattie arrived to settle her father's affairs, she learned that the killer, Tom Chaney, had fled to the Indian Territory with her father's horse, his two good luck gold pieces and $150.00. Mattie was determined to bring Chaney to justice, or to see him dead. After some investigation, and a good deal of difficult negotiation, she hired tough, merciless Cogburn to ensure her success in her quest.

True Grit has been filmed twice. 1969's production is a John Wayne Movie, arguably one of his best. In 2010, the story has come into the hands of Ethan and Joel Coen, and the brothers handle it beautifully. This time around, they and their fine ensemble cast have created a cold, dark, dangerous, winter manhunt in a wilderness which is still thirty years away from becoming Oklahoma. There are scenes in which the audio track of either movie could be dubbed over the other, and would not be too badly out of sync. The sets and cinematography are gorgeous, and because this is a Coen brothers work, the violence is graphic, but not gratuitous.

Jeff Bridges' Cogburn is no manufactured, Hollywood cowboy. He is an aging, overweight, bad-tempered, dissatisfied, one-eyed drunk, who is very good at killing people. In addition to his sidearm and his rifle, Cogburn travels with a pair of cap and ball Colt pistols slung over the horn of his saddle. We know that we will see more of these later.

Thirteen year-old Hailee Steinfield as Mattie is a smart, stubborn, opinionated teenager, who irritates everyone she meets and will push each of them to, or past, the contemplation of homicide - preferably hers.

Texas Ranger Sergeant LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is an vain, ambitious young man who has been tracking Chaney for the best part of four months for the killing of a state senator in Waco, Texas. Mattie has little regard for his abilities, less for his manner, and tries to dismiss him like an unwelcome suitor.

LaBoeuf attempts to interest Cogburn in a partnership which excludes Mattie entirely, but this falls to pieces when the two lawmen discover that they don't like each other at all.

British Columbia boy Barry Pepper is Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation, I'm sure). Ned is the leader of a small gang of bandits with whom Chaney may have taken refuge. He and Rooster have unfinished business, Cogburn having shot him in the lower lip some time before while aiming for his upper lip. Barry's Lucky Ned looks and sounds eerily like Robert Duvall, who played the part in 1969. But this is not Duvall's Lucky Ned. This is a ruthless, able, dangerous outlaw of Barry Pepper's own invention.

Josh Brolin's Tom Chaney is, by turns, a coward, a bully and a mean, murdering drunk. On the run from a Texas murder warrant issued in the name Theron Chelmsford, Chaney found work, refuge and a home on the Ross family farm. Mattie thought him lazy and stupid before the murder of her father. After, his death or capture became the singular aim of her life. It may be Mattie who instigates and drives the manhunt, but it is Tom Chaney who pulls her forward like a magnet.

The Coens insist that they have been truer to Charles Portis' 1968 novel than Henry Hathaway's film was, but they have changed events or characters to project their own vision of what the story should be. Surprisingly, this has small detrimental effect on the finished work, and serves mainly to make a good story last longer. Fans of the novel, and perhaps Charles Portis himself, may be outraged, but those of us who knew the story only from the 1969 film will probably be pleased with this well-finished product.

See it with your dad - or your big brother. I think they'll agree.

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