Those modern-day Brothers Grimm, the Coen Brothers, have persistently proven their cine-literacy. Each of their films is full to the brim with throwaway references to other films. Whether it be Blood Simple, Fargo or The Man Who Wasn’t There nodding to noir, or Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy referencing the raucous screwball comedies of Capra and Sturges, their films are self-aware and often darkly comic. Not since 2004’s The Ladykillers however, have they attempted a direct remake. And so, after their slap-dash rehashing of that classic Ealing comedy, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I ventured into the screening of their latest oddball, True Grit– a remake of the 1969 western starring John Wayne, re-modelled and infused with a nihilism and imagery customary of Cormac McCarthy. Let me say at the start, however, that their version is better than the original.
The film centres on strong-willed 14 year-old girl, Mattie Ross (a barnstorming performance from newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld) and her dogged quest to meet out justice to Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father. As the opening title from Proverbs heralds, “The wicked flee when none pursueth”. So, she travels to Fort Smith in search of the toughest, meanest lawman whom she can employ to do her bidding. That man is Rooster Cogburn (a growling, almost incomprehensible, Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed, whisky-sipping marshal known for his loose trigger finger. In the docks being questioned over his latest shooting, the defense asks how many men Cogburn has shot, “Shot or killed?” he retorts indignantly. “Killed, so as that we may have a more manageable figure.” comes the inquisitor’s response.
This economic introduction to Cogburn is repeated verbatim from the original, with John Wayne in superb comic form. This was the performance that would earn him his only Oscar. The Coen’s seem indebted to Wayne’s turn through the way they introduce Bridges’ Cogburn. He is presented as a silhouetted legend of the West, their camera stalking amongst the background of the court stands, denying us a clear glimpse of the man. Mattie corners Cogburn offering him ample compensation for tracking down Chaney which he reluctantly accepts. The unlikely duo are joined by Texas ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who intends to apprehend the murderer for killing a state senator. And so they venture out into Indian country, an unforgiving panorama of parched desert and otherworldly run-ins with characters that seem to have stepped off the pages of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; a silent native American collecting corpses to sell and an eerie apparition riding through a snowstorm wearing a bear skin and head. Their journey is shot sublimely by Coens regular, Roger Deakins, who offers gloriously uncompromising images of apocalypse with a corpse hanging one hundred feet in the air under a tree, the deceased’s shoulder being pecked by a vulture, and orchestrated by another Coens stalwart, Carter Burwell, whose tender piano melody is an affecting accompaniment to their venture into the unknown.
Other Coen trademarks are present and correct. The brothers’ dark wit pervades an opening mass hanging sequence whereby two of the three convicts are given opportunity to ask for redemption, but the third, a native American, is bagged and dropped before being allowed to utter a syllable. The result is literal gallows humour that also points out the eras xenophobia. The Coens’ customary violent outbursts are also apparent in sequences of finger lopping and point blank headshots followed by dialogue that is seeped in existential indifference. After a particularly bloody encounter where Cogburn adds to his kill tally, Mattie enquires as to how the men will be buried. The Marshal sardonically replies that “if these men wanted a decent burial, they should have got killed in the summer.” The harsh, opportunistic land of this western apparently does not allow for acts of kindness. Having said this, towards the end of the film, in the interplay between Cogburn and Mattie and a tagged on coda, the Coens display glimmers of sentimentality largely lacking in their other works. For the most part however, this is an uncompromising and highly memorable entry to the Coens’ canon.