Judge Patrick Bromley gives out very little sugar with his pronouncements.
Our reviews of True Grit (1969) (published April 7th, 2000), True Grit (1969) (Blu-ray) (published December 31st, 2010), and True Grit (1969) Special Collector's Edition (published June 4th, 2007) are also available.
Punishment comes one way or another.
Last December, I reviewed the original 1969 True Grit, starring John Wayne in the iconic performance that finally won him a Best Actor Oscar. At that time, I took some amount of flak for daring to suggest that though Wayne was fun and the movie was entertaining, the then-recently released remake by Joel and Ethan Coen was a superior movie.
Now, the Coen Brothers' 2010 remake of True Grit arrives on a stunning Blu-ray courtesy of Paramount to prove me correct. I stand by what I said.
Facts of the Case
When the father of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, Sons of Tucson) is killed, she sets out to get justice from his murderer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, W.). To do so, she enlists the help of a drunken, one-eyed, irascible U.S. marshal by the name of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, Tron: Legacy) and a pompous Texas ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity). Together, the tree set off into Indian territory in search of Chaney and the band of outlaws with whom he's taken up.
Are there better filmmakers currently working than Joel and Ethan Coen? I'm sure a case could be made for a select few others, especially as dictated by taste and subjectivity, but surely their names would appear on anyone's list of the five best. For evidence, look no further than their 2010 remake of True Grit, which gave the brothers their biggest box office to date, racked up a score of Academy Award nominations and joins the ranks of their best works.
Rather than simply remake the 1969 film, the Coens very publicly returned to Charles Portis' novel and reworked the material from the ground up. The results are at once recognizable as True Grit—many of the story beats and characters are the same, after all—and altogether different. Most of the similarities between the two movies stop with the basic story structure, as the Coens aren't as interested in the kind of mythic, larger-than-life entertainment provided by the original movie. Theirs is more of a character study centering on three individuals all after the same thing on paper, but with very different worldviews and reasons for their search. It's a movie about forming makeshift families, and about finding people who will listen to and respect you when the rest of the world has written you off. It's a movie about the dying of a way of life, and the relentless forward momentum of time. Like the protagonists of another Coen Brothers' movie, Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is an Old Man with No Country. Not anymore, anyway.
What is perhaps most impressive about True Grit is just how accessible and commercial the movie is, while still retaining all the eccentricities of a Coen Brothers movie. They have surrendered nothing of their own voice or style in their telling of Charles Portis' novel, but instead have found a way to weave what they traditionally do into a more mainstream aesthetic. The results seem effortless—only the Coens could make a movie this beautiful, this well written and acted and directed seem utterly easy. It's maddening and breathtaking at the same time. If nothing else, the movie is so much fun to listen to; the Coens love language, and that love is celebrated in every offbeat turn of a phrase in True Grit. They're the kind of lines you'll want to remember for later, and smile when you think of them.
While John Wayne will always be associated with the role of Rooster Cogburn, it's amazing to watch Jeff Bridges claim it as his own—his Rooster doesn't cut so large a figure, but manages to be more colorful, three-dimensional and interesting. Bridges disappears into the role, and had he not just won the Oscar for Crazy Heart the year prior (and if it had not been Colin Firth's year), I suspect there would have been more serious talk about the possibility of him taking home Best Actor honors. His Rooster is in the company of H.I. McDonnough, Marge Gunderson, Anton Chigurgh and Bridges' own The Dude as one of the best Coen characters of all time. Hailee Steinfeld is every bit as good as the critical accolades she received would suggest, and she manages to hold her own against two remarkably confident performances from Bridges and Matt Damon (who gives one of his best, most slyly funny performances as LeBeouf). Not to continue comparing the remake to the original film, but the thought of going back and watching Kim Darby in that movie (still one of the weakest elements of the 1969 version) is almost unthinkable—she's just no match for the class, grace and maturity of Steinfeld in the part.
Even casual fans of the movie ought to be won over by Paramount's gorgeous technical presentation of True Grit on Blu-ray. The 2.35:1. MPEG-4-encoded 1080p transfer looks remarkably film-like, with incredible detail, warm tones throughout, no errors or artificial enhancements and a nice layer of grain. It's a disc that does justice to Roger Deakin's perfect photography (sadly, he was passed over yet again for the Academy Award), and ought to please any fan of the movie or high def enthusiast. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track is equally strong, with excellent clarity and dimension. The colorful dialogue is always audible in the front and center channels, while every effect from a gunfight to the blowing of the wind across the desert is given equal attention. It's one of those rare, immersive tracks that's about creating a landscape and not just about shaking your seat—there's power, but there's subtlety, too.
The disc's ability to impress stops short at the special features, though, which offer only a handful of featurettes. The Coens are notoriously aloof when it comes to discussing their movies (I can think of only one commentary track in which they appear), and True Grit is no different. There's a piece on young star Hailee Steinfeld ("Mattie's True Grit"), a piece on the costume design ("From Bustles to Bucksin"), a very short featurette on the gorgeous photography by Roger Deakins ("The Cinematography of True Grit"), pieces on the sets ("Re-Creating Fort Smith") and the firearms ("Colts, Winchesters and Remingtons"), an overview of the cast and, finally, a somewhat comprehensive, 30-minute look at the original author ("Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of"). Rounding out the supplemental section is the movie's excellent original theatrical trailer, as well as a standard definition DVD copy of the movie and a digital copy for playback on your portable media devices.
There are still those that will object to my proclaiming of the Coen's True Grit as superior to its predecessor. Of course, by comparing the two I'm feeding into a rivalry that does not exist. Each movie is its own thing, and should be taken as such. The mastery of the Coen's take on True Grit does not take anything away from the 1969 film. My preference of one over the other does not mean that I am condemning what came before it. It's a subjective position—and isn't that what all criticism is?
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