True Grit

January 5th, 2011 | by Sqotty |

Yesterday I committed sacrilege. I went to see the Coen brothers remake of True Grit, one of John Wayne’s most famous films. A lot of people have already tackled the topic of whether or not it is a good idea to remake a classic, so I think I will skip out on that debate and stick to giving my nickel’s worth of what I thought of the film.

First things first – the Coen brothers pulled off a wonderful production, choosing New Mexico for filming, which gave them a landscape more reminiscent of what Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) looked like. Language, dialog, and mannerisms were strikingly 19th century, and this required the actors to extend themselves beyond the usual roles they have played.

The real gem of the film is Hailee Steinfeld, who was the same age as the character of Mattie Ross, whom she portrayed. She pulled off the role quite well. It’s hard enough to find good young teenagers who can turn in a decent performance, but to find one who can pull of a period piece and do so convincingly, that was tough. No wonder the Coen brothers were sitting on pins and needles hoping Steinfeld would work out once she was cast. The risk they took, just like the risk Zeffirelli took in casting a couple of unknown teenagers (albeit 18 year olds, making them adults) in his production of Romeo and Juliet, paid off. Steinfeld IS Mattie Ross.

Jeff Bridges was an interesting choice for the role of Rooster Cogburn, the crusty U.S. Marshall that is hired by Mattie Ross to chase down her father’s killer. He plays a drunken gunfighter quite well, and spits out his dialogue like so many shoeing nails, or like the bullets from his six-guns. He is rough around the edges and tells it straight, and when Mattie’s life is in danger, does not give up, giving her every last ounce of courage and strength. At one point, when Cogburn is telling Mattie stories, he talks about how he charged down a group of outlaws with his pair of Navy 6s, causing them to scatter. The Navy 6s he is referring to would be the Colt Model 1851 Navy in .36 caliber, originally a percussion cap and ball revolver, but many of these revolvers were converted to cartridge use after the Civil War.

Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBeouf looked about so different as to be barely recognizable, and his Texas accent sounded like he was talking with a moth full of cotton balls, which may well have been the case after LaBeouf nearly bites off a chunk of his tongue midway through the film. He looked different and sounded different. He probably even smelled like the open range and horse sweat. I think he did a better job of playing LaBeouf than Glen Campbell did in 1969, partially because Campbell looked too much like a clean-cut, pretty-boy country singer than a gritty Texas Ranger who’d been on the trail for months.

One more player I want to mention is Barry Pepper as “Lucky” Ned Pepper. Good choice. Pepper is one of the better supporting actors working in Hollywood. I think he is under used, especially since playing the war correspondent Galloway in We Were Soldiers. In True Grit, Pepper plays Pepper…hmmm. Ned Pepper is a notorious outlaw. Playing the heavy is always a challenge, and something most actors don’t want to be type-cast as. Pepper turns in a darn good performance as the outlaw leader. He is threatening and likeable at the same time.

Dialogue is important, and delivering it convincingly in a film like True Grit where so much depends on what is said and how the actors say it, can make or break the film just as quickly as casting the wrong actor for a role. The cast and crew hammered the ball right out of the park on this one, with an excellent cast all around. Good banter between Bridges and Damon added some humorous touches.

Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, sets up shot after shot of stunningly beautiful film, leveraging the stark beauty of New Mexico and Texas where the film was shot. Many of the shots felt like you were there, whether it was watching Mattie cut down the corpse hanging in the tree, or perched high above the final showdown between Cogburn and Ned Pepper’s gang.

Costumes and props were also well thought out, from the old cap and ball Colt Dragoon (highly recognizable when Mattie is presented with her father’s belongings) that Mattie carries, along with its accouterments, to the Sharp’s carbine carried by LaBeouf (most likely the Sharp’s 1863 in .45-70 government); I especially thought the look that they gave Hailee Steinfeld for her role as Mattie was appropriate, with two long braids of hair and her wide-brimmed hat.

One thing I am looking for is a writer-up on the guns of True Grit in Guns of the Old West. Wouldn’t mind seeing a piece on all of the guns that were used in both movies just to see how they differed in their choices (the Duke rode down Pepper and his gang with .38-55 Winchester with enlarged loop in one hand and a revolver in the other, while Bridges rushed the outlaws with a pair of revolvers).

All in all, a very enjoyable bit a sacrilege well worth the price of admission (five bucks for the matinee that I went to), even for hard-nosed John Wayne fans like myself. I may have to watch the original soon in order to absolve myself of my sins, but it was worth it.

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