A remake is only as good as two things: the original and the people remaking it. True Grit offers up a compelling challenge. The original is a John Wayne classic from 1969. It holds a beloved spot on the proverbial shelf of Westerns that is unquestionable. If making a list, it could quickly be categorized as a film to be left alone. But it was taken off that shelf in 2010. Now the second part comes into play: who do you trust to remake it, and more importantly, who would care to watch it? When the name attached was revealed to be the Coen Brothers, the question changed. It now became, “Who wouldn’t want to see this movie?” And just in case you’ve been asking yourself that question since last holiday season, True Grit is now on Blu-ray.
Fact is, the Coen Brothers are an institution. Much like Pixar, their films are set apart, and each new installment adds to the “Coen Brothers” library. With that in mind, it is difficult to watch the beginning of True Grit without thinking of their most recent film, A Serious Man. That film begins with a story that may or may not have anything to do with the greater purpose of what follows it. And that’s a deliberate choice. True Grit is different. True Grit is a film all about purpose.
The film is richly layered in every dimension. The frame is consistently textured with snow, leaves, chipped paint, or a combination of all three. The dialogue is immerse and flows without end as characters fill the space of walking with stories of their past. And Carter Burwell’s score calls upon hymns that enrich the church-born motivations behind Mattie Ross, the fearless 14-year-old girl whose experiences are at the center of the story.
Upon her father’s murder and the inherent ineptitude of everyone else in the world to care about it, Mattie Ross sets out to take care of things herself. She’s played with great conviction by Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for this role. She recruits the surly Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and eventually LaBoef (Matt Damon), who is played as a Texas Ranger with dandy flair epitomized by his fringed buckskin jacket. They reluctantly set out together to find the killer, though they disagree with what Mattie’s sense of justice requires. From this point on, you are welcomed to inhabit a textured world that’s punctuated with all the set pieces you’d want from a stark Western. This is broken by only one family film-esque scene where Mattie and her horse fight the currents of a river armed only with a triumphant rise in the score that would make a lonesome dove cry -- or at least cringe.
The film’s baddies are spectacular in their brilliant shortcomings. Josh Brolin plays the coward Tom Chaney, making choices with the character that no trailer prepared you for. Also, Barry Pepper returns as Lucky Ned Pepper, proving once again that people in Hollywood really like Barry Pepper. And you can’t blame them; he’s excellent as the commander of hill-worn miscreants.
All told, while the movie doesn’t seem distinctly “Coen Brothers,” there is no question that it could not have been made by anyone else. In fact, their restraint exercised in this film proves their love of the novel. It’s their lack of signature that shows how true their aim was in making a faithful adaptation.
Something special about the movies from these guys is that their rewatchability is practically unrivaled. Unfortunately, other than the outstanding picture and sound, there is not much on this disc. Other than a 30-minute feature on Charles Portis, the novel’s author, the disc’s content provides only minor insight into the making of the film, with no direct contribution from the Coens themselves. It is great to see the same team behind their other films back and discussing the specific challenges of True Grit, but there is nothing that goes into too much depth. Perhaps the best featurette is the one focused on the refreshingly candid man responsible for the prop weapons and other period items. To put one final notch under the restraint category: although the Blu-ray comes with both a DVD and Digital Copy, they are refreshingly relegated to only one additional disc. It’s good packing for a long trip.