From Duke to Dude.
They went and done it! Remade TRUE GRIT (1969). I can understand how John Wayne purists would blanch at any actor attempting his legendary dirt-talkin’, eye-patched, whiskey-guzzlin’, six-shootin’ role as Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. It’s like remaking DIRTY HARRY without Clint Eastwood.
But they went and done it anyways! And like one of those rare comets we feel privileged to witness as it blazes triumphantly across our skies, writers-directors The Coen Brothers have done the purists, the Duke, and the Western art form damn proud.
In 1995, Jeff Bridges played the real-life gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok in WILD BILL, all calamity gunfire and startling mullet; 15 years later, he’s Rooster Cogburn. In any estimation, fictional Rooster’s shoes are harder to fill, because Rooster was The Duke’s iconic, Oscar-winning role. How dare The Dude – lovable though he is – even try to pull this off?
Well, this new TRUE GRIT, adhering more closely to the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 film, boasts every aspect better than the original! Them’s fightin’ words… Not taking anything away from the dambusting 1969 movie, the acting is better here, the production design oozes 1880’s authenticity, the language feels Wild West weathered, the staging of every scene is more dramatic, the cinematography is eye-delight, the soundtrack (by Carter Burwell) evokes a fiercely Western pathos that Elmer Bernstein’s faux-MAGNIFICENT SEVEN themes failed to evoke, and the hero scenes are amped up to meaty proportions.
Jeff Bridges gargling car oil as Rooster was the final nail in the original’s coffin. Disheveled, rambunctious, gruff and gritty, we can almost SMELL him in his grimy long johns when Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) wakes him to set out on a manhunt for her father’s murderer. At the perfect weathered age, fat but not gross, his eye-patch on the OTHER eye, constantly smoking, drinking and rambling, his violence sudden and decisive, Bridges makes the character his own, stepping “vuhry” lightly on Wayne’s broad shoulders.
Told through the eyes of educated, strong-willed, 14-year-old schoolgirl Mattie Ross, TRUE GRIT follows her and Rooster – the most ruthless marshal she could hire, a man with “true grit” – as they hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in another of his small but effective roles).
Matt Damon is the loquacious Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef” for some esoteric comedic reason) who joins the hunt for Chaney, but for a much bigger Texas ransom. The constant squabbling between LaBoeuf and Rooster provides humor dredged from the most unlikely situations; at surprising moments, there is sudden levity, a lot of it to do with the delivery of the actors and the colorful (not expletive, but descriptive) language.
Barry Pepper is almost unrecognizable in the Robert Duvall role of sooty-faced Lucky Ned Pepper, his drooling mandibles twisted from a wound inflicted by Rooster years ago (much better makeup than Duvall’s clean scar). Like all modern “revisionist” Westerns, Pepper is not intrinsically evil, and follows a code of conduct, even if that be merely honor among thieves; we feel these men were forced into their villainous roles by the vagaries of social disparity and politics.
Even Rooster is no saint. Not only is he an incorrigible drunk, not only do stories circulate of his inordinate viciousness, we meet him on a court stand, testifying to a recent killing; he is painted almost as a sadist who uses unreasonable force on perps, with a history of impulsive shootings, ex-marriages, bank-robbing and riding with unsavory characters. He is one wrong kill away from being an outlaw himself.
When Mattie first meets him, he tells her, “Don’t believe in fairy tales, sermons, or stories about money.” He’s a cynic who just wants to collect the bounty on Chaney.
He boasts to Mattie of a time he put his reins in his teeth on horseback and charged seven men with both guns blazing. It’s much better foreshadowing than the original, so that when that rock god scene arrives, we feel that thrill up our leg like Chris Matthews on the night Obama got elected.
The story does not pull that obvious annoying character arc on us, with the rugged marshal becoming soft in the girl’s presence and the marshal in turn showing her how to be hard. There is a subtle, poignant message that many might miss if they’re here for just blood and guts and drinking car oil.
When all the baddies have been smoked, there is an almost anti-climactic epilogue, when Mattie gets bitten by a snake and Rooster desperately rides Mattie’s small horse with her to get to a doctor. Miles fly by. The horse dies. He shoots it unflinchingly against Mattie’s weeping pleas, then carries Mattie, puffing and stumbling against his weight and age, risking his own death to eventually come upon a cabin, where he collapses to the ground, firing a single shot to alert the occupants within for help… And we wonder: what has TRUE GRIT got to do with this midnight ride across moonlit plains on a dying horse? And we realize: that is the true measure of this man’s grit – not only can he gun down people brutally, he will ride down a horse and then enburden himself for the life of this little girl.
As good as TRUE GRIT 2010 is, it lacks the sociological punch of the original, because in 2010 we are used to young women fending for themselves. And the bloodthirstiness of Mattie in single-mindedly wanting Tom Chaney dead at her hands is not as shocking as it was in 1969 when it wasn’t “proper” for young women to behave that way.
Not demeaning the Coens’ efforts at all, but TRUE GRIT is a straightforward story about vigilante justice; what holds it back from being a “great” movie is that it lacks any kind of irony or self-reflection; there are no startling twists, rather some good story surprises, and though each man killed has a colorful history, this well-produced tale is simple and linear. And because it is a remake, it lacks the revolutionary bent of its predecessor.
Well, the only bit of irony I can find is that the word “dude” in the Old West meant a city slicker vacationing out west, a fake cowboy (hence the modern term “dude ranch” to denote a fancy-pants resort styled after a rugged Wild West homestead). So though Jeff Bridges somehow manages to mine nuances of that most beloved character of his and insert them seamlessly into his successive film roles (the drunkenness and scatterbrains go so well with Rooster), the fact he is so starkly authentic playing a rugged cowboy originally brought to life by THE American Cowboy means he is anything BUT – The Dude.