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Film Review: True Grit (2010)

Thursday, February 24, 2011
With the Academy Awards coming up, Godzdogz will be having a look at some of films that have been nominated.

When it was announced that the Coen Brothers were planning a remake of the classic 1969 western True Grit, even my faith in the Minnesota siblings' genius was tested. As a big fan of the original John Wayne version, I feared that they would  ruin my memories of the original by crafting either a lame-duck identikit tribute or an overtly dark-realistic re-imagining, which would strip the charm and iconic status of the original. Maybe I was still slightly scarred from their 2004 remake of the Lady Killers (which to be fair is much better on the second viewing). My worries however turned out to be unnecessary: True Grit (2010) is a triumph!

The Brothers have tried to go back to Charles Portis' 1968 novel of the same name. The story unfolds through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is determined to catch Tom Chaney, the cowardly killer of her father, and bring him to justice. Of course she can not do this on her own and Mattie hires a tough lawman with “true grit” known as Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Rooster initially resists her offer but her determination and sheer stubbornness changes his tune and soon enough they, along with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon), begin their hunt of Chaney, one that tests the will and “grit” of each trekker.

All three lead actors give a wonderful performance, especially the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Their performance helps this remake to stand apart from its forbear. The Coens' perfectly capture the wildness, violence and bleakness of frontier life but amongst the harsh and cold landscape they not only bring out the dark humour of the source material but also add their trademark quirkiness, especially seen in the frontier dentist character.

Throughout their works the Coen brothers have used subtle religious and Christian symbols and this is very much the case with True Grit. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: "The wicked flee when no man pursueth”.

The narrator then opens the film by saying "you pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free, except the grace of God”. These themes of retribution, revenge and justice are a central part of the plot but the subtle nods to divine justice and divine grace allow one to consider them in more than black and white terms. Mattie's objective to capture her father's murderer might seem a simple issue but her intentions are rather more complicated. As the film progresses we see her outer desire for justice clouded by her inward desire for vengeance. The Burwell-composed soundtrack, based on variations of the 19th century hymn On Everlasting Arms, points to the Mattie's failure to accept that sometimes we can not do everything ourselves and at times must accept that certain things are in the hands of God alone. The condition of Mattie's hand at the end of the film certainly is a symbol of this dynamic.

The second half of the opening verse from Proverbs "but the righteous are as bold as lions", is omitted, but I think it poses the central questions that True Grit raises: Are the actions of the trackers truly righteous? And is righteousness the true substance of the grit the trackers need?

Mark Davoren



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