I saw the new version of True Grit in the theater the other night—Waukesha has a new and very luxurious multiplex cinema called the Majestic, which is lovely—and it's just a terrific western. Very entertaining.
The celebrated Coen brothers, accomplished as they are, suffer from a touch of the universal tendency toward bombast even when they're not being indulgent. The less said about this the better, but maybe I could just mention that I plan to have a T-shirt made for wearing out to the movie theater: it's going to say "NO MORE SNAKEPITS!"
The very best critical exegesis of the modern cinema I've ever seen came in an episode of the TV show "The Office," of all things. Michael Scott, the earnest but bumbling boss played by Steve Carrell, is taking an improv class, and despite being browbeaten to follow the sanction against introducing guns into his improv, he does it again and again, obstreperously and unregenerately. That's modern TV and Hollywood in a nutshell. Despite the incessant gunplay and the usual exaggerated video-game carnage, though, the film is fully characterological, and just beautifully cast and acted. No actor strikes a wrong note, and at least five performances are way above average. Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is even better than John Wayne's, although he makes it into an entirely different role and a completely different, more naturalistic character. Even Matt Damon does a good job, possibly because this is one movie in which he is not allowed to wear a fedora.
But how, may I ask, could a female actress possibly have more of a leading role than Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross (left)? And yet she's nominated for Best Supporting Actress? Come on. If that's a supporting role, you can throw me in a snakepit. Limiting actors to supporting nominations just because of their age is yet another mannered Hollywood convention detached from reality. She deserves to be nominated for Best Actress, and there's an end on it.
Best line from a review: Richard Corliss in TIME, who says, "To those who have fond or foul memories of the Wayne True Grit, the Coens might be saying: You've seen the movie, now see the book." The book's theme, like this movie's, is that Mattie is the one with the truest grit. (Feminist sympathizers, take your daughters.) Of course, despite being a good plot, it's still a conventional one. That is, you're in no doubt that LaBoeuf is going to hit Ned Pepper and save Rooster, and when Mattie heads to the crick for water you know full well that's not all she's going to find there. All the surprises are in the details. The guy in the bear suit, for instance, or the way that corpse hits the ground—classic Coens.
The book, by the way, is terrific too, a short, fast, tasty read. And the new movie is much truer to the book than the John Wayne version, which is a good movie in its own right but entirely different in tone and mode. The Coen brothers version matches the book better in detail, motivation, locale, even pacing. They make the story back into a real anti-Western, in the best spirit of the times in which the book was written (1968). Their True Grit is worthy of standing alongside any of the other great anti-westerns, even the best one ever made, Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Even the stilted dialogue is true to the book, and meshes nicely with the Coens' symbolist and surrealist impulses, which you can easily detect even though they're mostly held in check.
To sum up: conventional, but fundamentally different from the original film version and a much better movie than any remake has a right to be. My verdict: A, and it would have been A+ but for the snakepit. Don't miss seeing it in the theater.
P.S. I'm taking the rest of today off, so comments won't be posted until tomorrow.
'Open Mike' is a series of off-topic posts that usually appear on Sundays. This weekend, a day early.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by JBerardi: "Todd Alcott is the ultimate arbiter of all things Coen. I cannot recommend his analysis enough. Regarding the snake pit: "Once she puts on her father’s clothes, she takes some apples from a fruit bowl and rides out of town reciting the 23rd Psalm. The symbolism here is obvious: the red apples represent Knowledge, which Mattie will acquire on her journey, before butting up against the apple’s companion, the Snake. (For those keeping score, the snake is in the novel, the Coens brought in the apples.)' "