It may be a remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, but don’t be fooled – the Coen brothers’ latest Western outing is their straightest story yet.
Raising Arkansas by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
The Coen brothers collect states like other people collect stamps. From their now native New York in Barton Fink and Burn After Reading or their childhood Minnesota in Fargo and A Serious Man to The Big Lebowski‘s city of angels and their southern states gumbo of Raising Arizona, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Ladykillers (both Mississippi) Blood Simple and No Country For Old Men (both Texas), it’s been a long and winding road movie tickling some of the States’ most whimsical underbellies. And so, leaving no turn unstoned, it’s Arkansas’ turn. And in their remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic True Grit, they also found their straightest hero yet. 14-year-old Mattie Ross is savvy and sharper than a serpent’s tooth. She scares the local merchants with her bible quotations and knowledge of the law, conjuring up a hefty endowment from her father’s untimely demise and unfinished businesses. And fording a river on her barely broken pony Blackie, she has more true grit than any of her dawdling, rambunctious predecessors.
Straight is the gate the Coen brothers now pass through, what with No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man and now True Grit. The quirky films of yore have been superseded by a more masterly, more conventional filmmaking. Except of course for the odd violent squelch and a horse-drawn bear thrown in under the snake rope. But there’s a nostalgic pleasure in True Grit, with its Golden Age montage of travelling dissolves, its plainly all-American landscape and episodic Hollywood arc. Even the central narrative of a little girl choosing her best new daddy is quaintly yesteryear. Yet nor does the Coens’ remake (nevermind their suggestion it’s a reinterpretation of Charles Portis’ original source novel) veer too far from the original, with its cigarillo-rolling feisty girl, widescreen vantage points and hogwashed, two-gun toting marshal. Where it differs, with La Boeuf’s survival and his all-important killer snipe, the Coens manage to knock Jeff Bridges off his hero’s pedestal somewhat; he’s not the same lone marshal John Wayne won an Academy Award with. Instead he vies with the Texas ranger for Mattie’s affections, both rivals for the role of viable father. And, like the eye patch that ostentatiously crosses from right to left, it’s a daring transgression away from a well-loved original.
The point, if ever there was one, to re-envisioning the 1969 Hollywood classic, is clear enough – Mattie, the greenhorn avenging ranger has true grit, the quality she rates most in drunken deputy marshal Rooster Cogburn. But it’s a shame the bygone narrative uses her heart of fire and then dumps her (literally) in a dark hole full of House of Horror chills – all ominous skeletons and poisonous snakes. She may be gritsome enough to shoot her arch nemesis Tom Chaney, played by a desperately underused Josh Brolin, twice, but she promptly falls down a well and has to be rescued by her two dads. In fact, while her thirst for revenge is treated as just – no-one else in Fort Smith can be bothered to give chase, her most unfeminine bloodlust becomes an original sin that requires expiation, rescued by a man from near-death in a starry night horse-busting race to the nearest doctor. The fallen woman aptly saved by the man she entrusted her life to. And with her arm most unbecomingly amputated to the elbow, the epilogue reveals she still bears the mark of Cain – a snakebitten adventuress in the 19th century, no wonder she’s a spinster.
Indeed, Mattie Ross pays a high price for avenging her father’s death, happy to risk both life and happiness for her quest. But it’s a strangely fulfilling adventure for the young teenager coming of age – her search for a father a chaste rehearsal for her future hunt for a husband. The fact she never marries and has Cogburn’s corpse brought into the family plot 25 years later reeks of sublimated romance, a twisted sexuality mirrored by LaBoeuf’s own inappropriate bedside attentions. But perhaps it’s a meeting of sexual impotents, and caught in an irresolvable father fantasy following her father’s murder, she’s unable to love another when her heart so firmly belongs to daddy.
It’s hard to believe the Coens’ True Grit will appeal to die-hard Western aficionados; not so much for Jeff Bridges’ oft incomprehensible drawl, rather for the sheer audacity of remaking a John Wayne classic. For the rest of us, there’s laughs, melodrama and memories of Hollywood’s heyday. And yet, despite Hailee Steinfeld’s grandstanding performance as the steely teen, the Coens’ film lacks guts, never quite taking off as much as Rooster Cogburn in his dare-all last stand. They may be trying to break the mould and make a film of True Grit, but the pleasure here is all in the pastiche.
True Grit is released in the UK on 11th February 2011