Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit

Some time over the holiday weekend, I went to a big cine-plex and enjoyed a luxurious screening of True Grit, the Coen Brothers' re-adaptation of the novel on which was based the 1969 John Wayne movie by the same name. As one would expect of a film by Joel & Ethan Coen, the 2010 version is visually rich, colorful, surprising, thought-provoking, violent, often darkly funny, and haunted by a grim, existentialist view of life. It features relatively unknown actors in unforgettable roles, well-known actors who fearlessly vanish into their characters, and the astonishing sense of being a remake that in no way competes with its original.

I discussed this with my Dad during a long phone call the other night. An interesting observation came out of that talk: Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the John Wayne character in the 1969 film. Jeff Bridges plays him, and disappears into him; John Wayne, on the other hand, gave an inimitable, tour de force performance as John Wayne. Which actor really owns this role?

Rooster Cogburn is a roguish U.S. Marshall in the late-1800s American West. A pigtailed young girl named Mattie Ross hires him to help her track down her father's killer. Dad remembers the 1969 Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby, as a whiny brat. Today's Mattie, courtesy of Hailee Steinfeld, came across (at least to me) as a strong-willed, fiercely determined young woman with a talent for getting her own way far beyond her years. Maybe the difference is that she never for an instant resorts to shrillness. She does it all by speaking quietly, distinctly, yet passionately; by reasoning grown men into a corner; and by staring them out of countenance with her hard, old-fashioned eyes. For me the moment that really defines the character is her parting remark to Frank James while visiting the Wild West Show (years later, as a 40-ish spinster, in the film's brief epilogue): "Keep your seat, trash."

Both films feature a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf, who rounds out the search posse. Played in 1969 by Glen Campbell, the 2010 role goes to Matt Damon. Then there's the bad guy, Tom Chaney: played in 1969 by Jeff Corey and in 2010 by Josh Brolin. An even bigger and badder bad guy in both films is called Ned Pepper, played by Robert Duvall (1969) and Barry Pepper (2010). There's an ill-fated young fellow named Moon, played first by the late Dennis Hopper, and now by Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan's promising son and lately Bill Weasley in the 7th Harry Potter movie. Both films are filled out by a distinguished cast of character actors whose careers it is fun (for me) to reflect on, but you can IMDB them yourself. Their interesting faces add to each film's rich texture and individual character.

The scene that really seized my imagination was the end of the story, properly speaking. Mattie has been snake-bit, and Rooster rushes her to medical care--first riding her horse to death, then running with the delirious girl in his arms in a dreamlike, starlit sequence, accompanied by the most unearthly strains of the film's musical signature: the homespun piety of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Finally he collapses within sight of a settlement and, unable to take another step or utter a sound, fires his pistol into the sky to summon help. And this is the last we see of Rooster Cogburn; "we," in this case, including Mattie Ross. Suddenly, all his abrasive manners aside, this feels like a loss. That such an adventure could be only an incident in a lonely woman's life, and not the beginning of a relationship with those who shared it, is so movingly sad that viewers are likely to leave the film in a subdued mood--a strange ending to a great modern western.

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