Wednesday I performed a selfless sacrifice for TAS readers. I went to a theater and watched the Coen brother’s wildly superfluous True Grit, a much less entertaining business than the justly acclaimed John Wayne original. I saw it so red-blooded TAS readers don’t have to.
Yes, that’s Joel and Ethan Coen, the movie making burn-outs famous for what the entertainment press insists on referring to as “quirky dark comedies,” and which I’ve called a few other things. See Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo,” certainly one of the most hideous abuses of celluloid in movie history.
Learning that the Coen brothers had decided to produce their version and vision of True Grit was no more disorienting to me than if I had learned that Oliver Stone had planned to remake Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
True Grit didn’t need to be re-made. The 1969 horse opera starring John Wayne as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is a jewel of a picture, at least a four on a five-point scale. It fetched the Duke’s only Academy Award of his long and successful career where he was loved by movie-goers world-wide, though largely sniffed at by reviewers who disdained his conservative politics. But assuming the world has room for yet another True Grit, the Coen boys would be about the last movie makers I would choose for the job.
The Coen Grit turns out less bad than survivors of Arizona or Fargo would have every right to expect. But it’s impossible to make the case the movie is worth two hours of anyone’s life, particularly in this blessed season.
The sneering contempt for everyone who isn’t a bi-coastal film major, which viewers were bludgeoned with in Fargo, is absent. But much of Fargo‘s violence and blood splatter is present. The camera does not look away at the right moment, as it did in 1969, during the early hanging scene.
Those unfortunates who watched Fargo were treated to one of the characters being fed into a wood chipper. And in other scenes the camera lingered lovingly over some very grotesque wounds. The Minnesota-nice characters in Fargo are drawn as simpletons and moral ciphers who mostly just stand around in funny hats and say “Geez-Yah.” I guess that’s what film majors and Hollywood idlers call dark comedy.
The new Grit is literally darker than the 1969 version, with many scenes shot with very little light, and where there is light there’s often smoke or haze which gives the scenes an unearthly tone. I guess this is supposed to be arty. Mostly it just makes the actors hard to see.
The reason the Coen boys give for wanting to remake True Grit is they had read and liked Charles Portis’s 1968 novel by the same name. No puzzle here. Portis’s novel, told from the point of view of 14-year-old Mattie Ross who pays U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to track down her father’s killer, is a charmer and well worth the reading time.
The Coens said they wished to tell the story from Mattie’s perspective and to stay closer to the book than director Henry Hathaway did in 1969 with the Duke. They sort of achieved this, but not by much. Aside from a sentimental, non-Portis ending to the 1969 version, Hathaway stayed pretty close to the book. The Coens went with the less old Hollywood ending.
But considering the characters in the book, the Coens mission was doomed to failure, or to at least only meager success. The Mattie in the book, an engagingly unreliable narrator, is a charming character, at once tongue in cheek and realistic. By turns insightful beyond her years and naïve as any 14 year-old. She’s stubborn, opinionated, bossy, sometimes downright irritating. She’s full of questionable folk wisdom and Bible quotes. In short, a lot of fun to read along with. And she’s the center of the book.
But it’s much harder to make a quirky 14 year-old the center of a movie. You can keep a character like Rooster Cogburn pretty much contained on the written page. But on the screen there is no way a prim 14-year-old girl is going to drag attention away from Rooster. And the new Mattie doesn’t, any more than the old Mattie did.
A word or two about the two Roosters. The Rooster Cogburn role was made for an aged and weathered John Wayne. The Duke was blustery and almost as big as the scenic outdoors his western movies were filmed in. He looked physically intimidating enough for the job of hauling bad guys back out of Indian territory, dead or alive. On the other hand, Jeff Bridges, a fine actor, doesn’t.
Where the Duke’s Rooster dominated every scene he was in with his sheer physicality and vigor, Bridges’ Rooster is hunched and ratty and looks like he should be sleeping under a bridge. He exudes a certain meanness and low grade grouchiness, but this is a world away from toughness. He uses a gravely voice that makes it often hard to understand what he’s saying. Duke’s rooster convinced. Bridges’ comes up short.
Perhaps not by accident, Turner Classic Movies featured the 1969 True Grit last night, the day the new Grit opened in theaters. Those who stayed home around the tube got the better of it. No need for anyone to abuse any holiday leisure with the Coen brothers’ latest.