Saturday, December 25, 2010

With The Bit Between Their Teeth

It has always seemed to me a risky business to remake an existing film. To remake an iconic film seems riskier yet (and maybe pointless), and when that film starred perhaps the single biggest movie star in history--and indeed earned him the only Oscar of his career--a remake seems almost like a kind of cinematic death wish. A great film almost always features a rare convergence of talent and circumstance, something which seems improbable to expect in the remake. And to additionally expect to outdo the actor's great performance seems an impossible task.

But the Coen Brothers are nothing if not fearless, and one comes to expect the unexpected. Their latest film wades into the fray by remaking Henry Hathaway's 1969 Western, True Grit. Actually, their motivation was not to remake the movie, exactly, but to re-adapt the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name on which the original was based. The movie tells of a precocious 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (played here by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), whose father has been murdered by the notorious miscreant Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin). After the murder, Cheney slips quietly out of town and heads for cover into Indian territory where he joins up with a band of marauding criminals. Young Mattie Ross comes to town to attend her father's funeral, and after settling his affairs (in hilarious, steamroller fashion) proceeds to hire the rough-and-tumble federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to go after Cheney. Ross will accept nothing less than Cheney's death in retribution, and the film chronicles their adventures in pursuit of this end.

I confess that I am unable to address what is perhaps the single most obvious question: how does the remake compare to the original film? I saw Hathaway's True Grit a million years ago, but I remember virtually nothing of it. And so I can only assess how the film works on its own terms and must hope this provides a workable yardstick. I got a couple different vibes from the film. The previews imply a darker, heavier film than the original, and I was kind of expecting something with the flavor of the Coens' remarkable Best Picture Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men. But this isn't the model, really. True Grit is lighter in tone than that film, though the Coens are notorious for mixing comedy and drama in virtually everything they do. I think I was reminded more of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the story underneath is a serious one, but we are given plenty of reasons to laugh throughout.

The Coens have assembled another great cast of big names and unfamiliar faces. Jeff Bridges, immortalized as "The Dude" in their 1998 film The Big Lebowski, returns to the crew here as Rooster Cogburn, a crotchety, ruthless drunk of a Federal Marshal with an itchy trigger finger. I must say this is one way to follow up the singular brilliance of The Dude: remake a role for which someone else won filmdom's highest honor. (I find myself thinking of another role played by different actors, specifically Anthony Hopkins's legendary performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme's 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. The character of Lecter actually made his screen debut a few years earlier played by the great British actor Brian Cox in the 1986 Michael Mann film Manhunter. It's fascinating to see another actor's take on the psychotic genius.) Again, I don't remember much of John Wayne's original Rooster Cogburn, but I feel confident that Bridges' performance will hold its own. In addition to Bridges and Josh Brolin, the other big names in the film are Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger La Boeuf and Barry Pepper as the gang leader "Lucky" Ned Pepper.

But the real standout is the 13-year-old film debutante Hailee Steinfeld. (The Coens have an eye for talent; I'm reminded that one of Scarlett Johansson's first films was their The Man Who Wasn't There.) A significant part of the story rests on the improbable precocity of a young girl who wanders into what would be for her an extremely unfamiliar world and takes command of it. The previews show what I assumed to be a 20-year-old woman playing the cheeky girl, and I was frankly shocked to learn the actress really is as young as the girl she portrays. Given the epic nature of big filmmaking these days, it's quite a thing for such a production to rest upon an actress of such youth. If Ms. Steinfeld doesn't pull this off, there is no film. The character of Mattie Ross is maddeningly obstinate and almost laughably precocious; she has an unfaltering confidence mixed with a steely resolve, all softened just a bit by an endearing greenness in the foreign setting (to her) where her adventure unfolds. That she appears to know more Latin and more about courtroom procedures than the Federal Marshal who would have had years of experience in these settings must just be ceded to the filmmakers' artistic license. The few YouTube clips of young Ms. Steinfeld being interviewed show that her Mattie Ross is in fact a fine acting job (and not just how she is), and one rather expects a promising career ahead of her.

The movie burbles right along with nary a dull moment. The story has a strong narrative sinew, and the characters feel bigger than life without slipping into caricature. And it is, of course, beautifully composed and shot. The Brothers are again working with DP Roger Deakins, and there is a sense of a fading era of American history being lovingly evoked for us. The score, by the Coens' longtime collaborator Carter Burwell, sounds at times like Ken Burns's Civil War documentary, with a sparse piano playing hymn-like tunes. There were a few moments where the tone seemed a bit Muzak to me, which is surprising from the Brothers who do not often make a false step (or so it seems to me). But no matter; this is a successful outing and another notch in their cinematic belt.

(*spoiler alert!*)

There is one scene that has stayed with me and of which I feel I must make some mention. In order to save Mattie Ross's life after she is bitten by a rattlesnake, Cogburn takes the injured girl in his arms and literally rides a horse to death to get her to some kind of medical care. I find this scene so deeply disturbing and horrifying that I nearly couldn't watch it and it's about all I'm thinking of 24 hours later. I don't know what it is that enables me to pass over (or at least accept) human suffering when the same situation applied to an animal is unbearable. Cogburn did what he felt he must do to save the girl's life--this is the one scene where the murderous man acts to save someone and where he shows something other than scorn for Mattie--and torturing an animal very likely was necessary here to save her. But it's a harsh reality to which I just cannot reconcile myself--I can scarcely place her life above the horse's. I put this in an aside at the end as it surely is more my own quirk than any flaw with the film and it likely won't affect most people as it does me; but though I eagerly buy every Coen movie when they're available, I think I'll never be able to watch this scene again. My reaction is strong enough to very nearly ruin the movie for me. Nonetheless, I'll try to set this bit aside as I make my evaluation.

And then I would give it a B+


dbackdad said...

I read up to your spoiler alert. Planning on seeing the movie somewhere around here while I'm still on vacation. They have movie theaters here in Iowa, don't they? :-)

wunelle said...

Yes, but they're still steam-powered!