The western holy grail

True Grit is True Grit. Walking out of the theater with a friend, he turned to me and said, “That’s a story you really can’t break.” And he’s right: “The strangest trio to ever track a killer.” That’s all the pitch you need. It’s a three-way buddy movie, with built-in redemptions, all the necessary sacrifices, and a bad guy who’s all-the-way bad. At the same time, though, it’s a remake, right? Suggesting that something was broke the first time around, that there’s something a good remake — in competent hands like the Coen brothers’ — could fix, or at least update. But how to update a western? More tumbleweeds? Starker vistas? Say “recollect” more? There’s better gore this time around, sure, and higher production values, but still, a movie like True Grit’s a holy relic for America, and, going into the theatre, you have to be a little suspicious that the Coen brothers just wanted to touch the grail. To leave their fingerprints on it.

No worries, though. They put it back when they’re done, and it’s none the worse for wear. Maybe even better for it.

The original had its humor, its good one-liners from Mattie. But many of those laughs from 40 years ago hinged on her pluckiness, on her playing against type, and, man, that hat she had pinned on like a saint’s halo, in case we didn’t know her quest was just. This time around, our Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) wears her hat like a hat, and though many of her lines are word-for-word from the original, Joel and Ethan Coen are able to manipulate the scenes in such a way that they’re actually funny now, instead of just cute. If you want one justification for this remake, it’s that already-famous negotiation scene with the horse trader early on in the movie, that scene you already considered complete, untouchable. Watching how the Coen brothers have done it, though, you realize that it was pure exposition the first time — just a way for us to get to know Mattie. Now, however, it characterizes not just her but the whole era, the whole attitude, and effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Here the Coen brothers found something we didn’t even know was broken, and fixed it.

If you need another justification for the remake, it’s that Jeff Bridges can absolutely inhabit John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. Bridges isn’t just carrying over his country and western credit from Crazy Heart here; he’s trading in his Dude duds for some Duke sixguns, and, because it makes the highs seem higher, he takes Cogburn even lower.

What of the Dennis Hopper role, the Robert Duvall role, and Matt Damon as Glen Campbell’s Texas Ranger LaBoeuf? It seems unlikely the Coen brothers would be able to fill all these vital roles as well as they do, and then get such excellent, on-key performances, but, well, they have. The way Damon’s LaBoeuf is written lets him become an actual character, not one simply there for contrast, contrivance, and exposition. He matters.

All in all, this is one of the movies of the year, a cinematic feat just in time for Christmas. But do I prefer the original ending or the Coen brothers’ take? The original, I think, blasphemously. Unless there’s going to be an alternate ending on the eventual DVD, where we can, if we want, have that excellent Rocky III send-off of a last scene we get in the original, instead of the more No Country for Old Men ending we get here, where the story kind of rides off into the sunset and nobody’s sure whether it’s over or not, at least until the credits start rolling. Of course, it’s not about re-shooting Psycho, it’s about making the story your own, or putting your unique touch on it. Nobody but the Coen brothers could have done that so well. •

True Grit

Dir. Ethan and Joel Coen; writ: Ethan and Joel Coen (based on a novel by Charles Portis); feat. Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld (PG-13)

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