What do you get when you have a head strong young woman, a cranky old law man, an obsessed Ranger and Proverbs 28:1?
Still thinking about it? Let me give you a hint, a remake of a classic that sets itself apart while introducing a rough character that many men would love to have been. This time around the tale of Charles Portis is being told through the eyes and imagery of the Coen brothers. Ethan and Joel (Burn After Reading, No Country for Old Men) have brought together another great crew for a film sure to woo the old and young.
“The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion”, Proverbs 28:1. When a young woman, Mattie, heads to Fort Smith to take care of her recently departed father, she heeds those words. Her father has been shot and killed by the cowardly Tom Chaney, and she aims to bring him to justice one way or another. How is this 14 year old going to do so? Being head strong that she is and book smart to boot she finds the meanest Marshal, ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, to help her. Cogburn is the ‘epitome’ of a lawman of the late 1800’s, always drinking, always getting the job done one way or another. Along her pursuit and eventual hiring of Cogburn to take up her fight and bring her father’s killer to justice, Mattie comes across a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (pronounced ‘Le Beef’ in the film). These three unlikely become a posse heading into Indian Territory to track down Tom and anyone who he may have hooked up with, bringing him in to be judged. During their journey ideals will be tested, shots will be fired and their lives will be linked in a way no one could imagine.
Before you even think this is going to be a frame by frame remake, stop right now. The Coen brothers have gone back to the original story and brought to the screen Portis’ novel as it is in the book. This is truly not your grandpa’s or dad’s ‘True Grit’ as portrayed by John Wayne, Glen Cambell and Kim Darby. Oh no. It is a harsh, realistic view of what was considered the entry of the Wild West in the late 1800’s.
Going back and rereading the Portis novel, the Coens are telling the story as the book does, through Mattie. The original film side stepped that little detail and focused on the big draw in John Wayne. Please do not start the torching now because of that comment. John Wayne was an excellent actor and his Cogburn will always be a perennial favorite when you talk about the best western character portrayals but there is more to this particular story than that character. Ethan and Joel saw that and drew upon the determination of Mattie to follow her heart and soul into doing what many were ready to just forget. With the underlying tones of Mattie’s upbringing as a Christian and being well versed in all manners, you feel the Coen’s wanted to create a film that can and does stand apart and alone from any predecessor.
A part of the brothers’ adaptation that I found tough at first was the speech they chose, that of the time period. Being a theater performer and use to a vast array of styles of speech, it is raw getting use to the colloquial verbiage and sentence structure of the time. Some may find this choice of structure to turn them off and those like I will appreciate the authenticity of the nature. It was a tough time for anyone, with so many not educated or bare bones education and those who could afford or find the resources to be educated. This kind of realism in their work is what elevates the Coen’s yet again.
Realism is what takes this film upward in terms of overall enjoyment and enthrall. From the art direction to the music, all is picked out of an old steam trunk of yesteryear and placed ever so delicately on the canvas of the screen.
When I write my reviews I do my research. I looked up Fort Smith and read about its true wild past. Art director Christina Ann Wilson (Alice in Wonderland, Shutter Island) with the assistance of Stefan Dechant (Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are), set decorator Nancy Haigh (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading) and production designer Jess Gonchor (A serious Man, Burn After Reading) did the same. Their re-creation of Fort Smith along with the colorful places Portis describes in the novel are far more accurate than has been seen in other adaptations. From the street scenes down the main thoroughfare, inside the establishments of the era or during the venture into the Indian Territory, meticulous thought was put in to bring you into the roughness of life.
Rounding out this creative ensemble is the music of Carter Burwell (The Blind Side, Twilight) and the costuming of Mary Zophres (Iron Man 2, A Serious Man). These two have helped weave a tale with subtle undertones of music and the caricatures of the 1800’s. Burwell feels the emotion of the film with a score harkening to the western style of Arron Copland (Rodeo, Appalachian Spring) and film scoring of John Williams. From the entrance of Mattie to seeing a trapper sneaking out from the brush, Zophres goes all out dressing the actors in style or lack thereof. The costumes are vast in range from well designed and created ladies of the period to the animal skins the mentioned trapper wears. Just to point out when you see this trapper it is a little freaky and then you realize it is a necessity for this character and again along with the talents of all involved draws you into this fascinating tale.
About those doing the telling; Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart, Iron Man) is hitting the mark with just about every film he has made as of late. With no disrespect to John Wayne, Bridges makes this Cogburn an SOB you come to love. Bridges’ downright dirty and out for himself portrayal is crafty, adventurous, humorous and touching. Matt Damon (Hereafter, Green Zone) at first is tough to watch. As LeBoeuf, Damon does well but does not fit what I would consider an idealistic Texas Ranger. Sometimes coming across comical and inept to be a Ranger is how it is seen and a little too pristine in appearance. Stepping out in her first of what may be many feature films is Hailee Stienfeld:and the protrayal of Mattie is a perfect role to do so. She takes the confidence of Mattie every step and tumble along the trail. You just can’t help but want to get behind her, following her along her journey no matter where it may take you.
It truthfully is a wonderful film to see. It does nothing to take away from the original film and yet makes you appreciate its own originality. A tale that depicts the harshness and the beauty of life in the late 1800’s of America. Rough, business driven, social, expanding, and naïve could describe the time but it is perseverance that built this country and it is that perseverance with which drives Mattie. Her pure want to see that justice comes to those that have wronged her family and the drive to do so with two complete strangers, with their own agenda and drive, to help her. The three will test each other along the way but ultimately see the need to work and be together.
We all have time in our life like these three, in a situation where we have our own goals but must work together if we are ever to achieve them. Some may see this in your family or personal life but most will see this tale at their work. Being thrust together with utter strangers and come out as a team, a family. I’ve been doing this for the past 2 years now. Working with an amazing group of individuals wh
o have their strengths and drive toward a personal goal, yet set them aside to help out more people than we will ever know. Through our own personal trials and tribulations with each other and in our own personal lives, we stand by one another and keep each other’s spirits lifted. I honestly do not know what I would have done these past 2 years if I had not had them in my life. Thank you for all the memories. They will be with me always. As Mattie is able to still stand on her own after finding justice, I know I will be able to go on and be successful. And like Mattie, those work mates, my family, will always be on my mind and in my heart.
You can follow my news, happenings and updates around So Cal on Twitter @SCThrillsMarc. See you around town!