The Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ is a Far More Faithful Cinematic Adaptation Than What Came Before

Watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s version of “True Grit,” it suddenly occurred to me I had read the book it was based on back in my sophomore year of high school. I can’t believe I forgot that as I usually remember every book me and my fellow classmates were made, or forced, to read such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” or “A Day No Pigs Would Die.” This book, which was written by Charles Portis, however, seemed to have escaped my memory of having read it. When I think of the book now, I am reminded of how Mattie Ross, when she saw the body of her murdered father in his coffin, simply told the undertakers, “Put a lid on it.”

Damn! Mattie seemed cold as ice; hell bent on pursuing her father’s killer no matter what and without ever shedding a single tear. But she is also a human being endowed with an undying sense of purpose, determined to find fairness in a world which often seems devoid of it. Now everyone remembers Rooster Cogburn more than any other character in “True Grit” because John “The Duke” Wayne portrayed him in the 1969 movie as it won him his only Oscar. But those who have read this novel know full well it is really about Mattie Ross, not the easiest person to get along with, but hard not to admire. It’s her story more than it ever was Cogburn’s, and the Coen brothers understand this completely in their cinematic adaptation which proves to be very faithful to its source material.

Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin may have top billing, but the weight of “True Grit” rested on the soft shoulders of then 14-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Her astonishing performance brings Mattie Ross right off the written pages of Portis’ book and to vivid life. This was not necessarily the case when Kim Darby portrayed her opposite Wayne in 1969. Our sophomore English class watched some, but not all of, the original film, and once we saw Mattie cry in a way she never would have in the novel, we all knew one liberty too many had been taken with the source material. I guess having a character appear stronger willed than one played by The Duke must have seemed unthinkable at the time.

But seriously, Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie, and the movie would have completely failed were she not as fantastic as she was here. Seeing her stroll into the town with her no-nonsense attitude and wise beyond her years, the actress sells the character perfectly and has us eager to follow her every step as she pursues Tom Chaney before he escapes the hand of justice. Her eyes show a willful determination which I never doubted, and any sadness she shows is somehow restrained. Steinfeld takes a character who is not altogether likable and makes her one of the most compelling characters I saw in any 2010 movie. She doesn’t so much play the character as much as she inhabits the role. Now how many other 14-year-old actors do you know who can pull this feat off?

As the story goes, Mattie tries to procure the services of Rooster Cogburn because she believes he possesses “true grit;” someone who has courage, fearlessness, and guts. As played by Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, who owned the 2010 holiday season with this and “Tron: Legacy,” Rooster is a drunken lout who never appears to be fit for his line of work, but his sense of duty does manage to keep him sane in an increasingly violent world. The relationship he has with Mattie is not one based on kindness, and he would as soon as leave her in the dust than bring her along. But something about Mattie’s dogged determination, illustrated by her riding her horse across a river while keeping her head above water, wins the whiskey loving Marshall over.

I’m not going to bother comparing The Dude and The Duke because frankly I don’t have the energy. Wayne made his mark in one film after another, and Bridges’ performance works so well because he never tries to outdo what Wayne did. Like any smart actor, he makes the character his own, and his Rooster Cogburn threatens to be every bit as inebriated as Val Kilmer was when he played Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” From the start, I was almost afraid Bridges might turn the character into a parody of sorts, and perhaps rely too much on his “Big Lebowski” persona to get him through the day. But this never was the case as Bridges makes his Rooster Cogburn into a wonderfully complex character who, despite his grungy appearance, still knows the Indian territory like the back of his hand.

Also along for the ride is Matt Damon who portrays Texas Ranger LaBeouf. I thought he would stick out like a sore thumb here, but he makes his character a wonderfully engaging one even as he keeps coming and going throughout. Seeing LaBeouf get his ass handed to him by Mattie Ross is a major highlight, only if to see the shocked expression on his face when he realizes he truly got suckered by a 14-year-old.

Josh Brolin, who previously worked with the Coens on “No Country for Old Men,” makes Tom Chaney not just a simple one-dimensional villain as his crime was motivated more out of jealousy and fear than anything else. Even he can’t intimidate Mattie as she has the strong resolve and moral fortitude he seriously lacks, and his life has lost its sense of purpose. Brolin manages to convey all this in the limited time he has onscreen.

Another guy I was happy to see here is Barry Pepper. As “Lucky” Ned Pepper (no relation I’m sure), he gives us a nasty outlaw and a vicious guy who will not allow anyone to undo his authority any more than he appears willing to brush his teeth; man, his teeth look hideous!

The main difference between the 2010 and 1969 movies is in how the wild, wild west is portrayed. The 1969 movie was more about watching Wayne blow away the bad guys just as he had in every other movie he starred in. But the 2010 version portrays the world it inhabits much more realistically, treating violence as a brutal and very vicious thing. This one is more akin to “Unforgiven” than “Rio Bravo.” Violence is a way of life for all these characters, and it defines the way they see the world around them. We also see how it affects their souls as the specter of death hangs over their every move. There’s no attempt to sweeten up the narrative or make it the kind of western many of us grew up watching.

Still, the Coen brothers have succeeded in making one of their most accessible movies to date for the mainstream audiences with “True Grit.” They also managed to do it without compromising themselves as this film sees them getting the widest audience they ever had before. They continue to employ their regular collaborators who never fail them such as cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, and their longtime composer Carter Burwell who contributes another in a long line of great movie scores.

If there was any problem I had with this “True Grit,” it was in the way it ended. We see one character many years later, and the effect is disorienting. It was the same thing that happened at the start and the end of Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” and it just took me out of the moment. The effect wasn’t too bad in this one, but I was hoping to see the actor who played said character get more of a proper send off.

Remaking a movie like “True Grit” seems like the last thing the Coen brothers would ever do, but I believe them when they say this was never intended to be a remake. They stayed very true to the source material and even made the language Portis scribbled down seem very much alive and sharp witted. Whether or not you value Wayne’s take on Rooster more than Bridges’, you have to give the Coens credit for staying true to a book written back in 1968.

The Academy Awards showered a number of nominations for this film including Best Actor for Bridges and Best Picture. While I was happy to see Steinfeld nominated for Best Supporting Actress, I still think it was a travesty she was not nominated for Best Actress instead. Once again, this movie rested on her shoulders, and she was cast in a role which 15,000 other actors auditioned for. Seriously, Best Actress, not Best Supporting Actress. Her male co-stars were supporting her instead of the other way around.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Seven Psychopaths’ Lays Waste To Many Action Movie Cliches

Seven Psychopaths movie poster

Leave it to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh to find ways to skewer those endless clichés we keep seeing in action movies. Seriously, it feels like so many directors outside of Quentin Tarantino have tackled them to where we are completely burned out on films which try to show how clever they are in taking apart clichés which have long since been torn apart time and time again.

McDonagh’s film “Seven Psychopaths” appears to be another one of those satirical and incredibly violent action movies on the surface, but underneath it all is a surprisingly moving story about friendship. Now I can already hear a lot of people telling me how using violence to tell a story like this is utterly hypocritical, but they are clearly not aware of McDonagh’s plays like “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” or “A Behanding in Spokane,” and they clearly have not seen his previous movie, the brilliant “In Bruges.” All those works do have a high level of blood and violence in them, but they are not simply designed to shock people. Instead, McDonagh uses those elements to get at a deeper truth about life and the people closest to us, and this is not always apparent to those who view his work from a distance.

The movie stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a struggling writer who is eager to finish his screenplay which is also titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is he spends far more time getting drunk on wine and beer than he does in writing anything. So far, the only idea Marty has come up with is a Quaker psychopath who finds an interesting way to follow someone to the afterlife (I won’t dare give it away here). His actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help him, but he is caught up in his part time business of dog kidnapping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). With this business, they cleverly managed to abduct dogs, and then they return them to their owners for a reward.

One of the dogs Billy kidnaps, however, turns out to be a Shih Tzu named Bonnie which belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a vicious gangster who has far more love for animals than he does for humanity. This forces Marty, Billy and Hans to go on the run as Charlie and his henchmen will stop at nothing to get little Bonnie back. While making their getaway, they come to look at what has become of their lives and of how they need one another’s friendship to survive in such a competitive world.

Now combining comedy with violence (and we are talking very bloody violence here) is never an easy mix as it often feels uneven in most movies which attempt it. Bobcat Goldthwait tried it earlier this year with “God Bless America” which had its two main characters going on a crime spree in which they killed off various spoiled rotten celebrities with extreme prejudice. While Goldthwait mostly succeeded with that film, he was walking a thin line between success and failure as his subject matter proved to be very controversial.

McDonagh has it a little easier than Goldthwait though as, while the struggles of these Hollywood wannabe characters does feel a bit realistic, the story has him dealing with a number of seriously deranged characters, all of whom seem comfortably removed from reality. And as he did with “In Bruges,” McDonagh does a wonderful job of combining some laugh out loud moments with scenes of strong emotion. As a result, you never are sure what exactly will happen from one scene to the next.

In movies like these, Colin Farrell appears to be having the most fun as an actor. After appearing in the needless remake of “Total Recall,” he fares much better as a writer who is afflicted with self-doubt and is not always the nicest person to be around. But the joy of watching Farrell here is seeing his character grow as a person right up to the film’s conclusion, and he is much better at accomplishing this than many typically give him credit for.

Watching Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle once again reminds us how he is a powder keg of creativity and is as unpredictable as most actors get these days. Rockwell is endlessly entertaining as his character takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the movie, and he almost steals the show as he performs for Farrell’s and Walken’s characters what he thinks is the best climax of an action flick ever. The audience I saw this with at Arclight Hollywood ended up applauding him when he was finished, and you do not always see this happening in a movie theater.

Then there is Christopher Walken who still appears to be going back and forth from being a brilliant actor to one who engages in self-parody a bit too much (“I gotta have more cowbell!”). But as Hans, Walken gives one of his very best performances in a long time as he perfectly captures the character’s giddiness at how he makes a living to unveiling a deep pain which he can no longer hide when tragedy overtakes his life. All the way up to his last moment onscreen, Walken is a marvel and a thrill to watch.

Woody Harrelson himself has been on a roll in movies for the past few years, and his performance as Charlie Costello is absolutely inspired. You come out of “Seven Psychopaths” feeling like Harrelson was born to play this role, and this is saying something when you consider Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before he had some sort of falling out with McDonagh. But this character brings out that wonderful comic touch Harrelson consistently gave off in “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and it also showcases the uninhibited darkness which he unforgettably portrayed in “Rampart” and “Natural Born Killers.” Harrelson can go from being funny to frightening in zero seconds flat, and you do not even have to be a pesky paparazzi photographer to see this.

There are also some terrific turns from Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as two of Costello’s hoods, and Tom Waits is wonderful in a supporting role as a remorseful psychopath. The movie is also aided by a great film score by Carter Burwell, an excellent production design from David Wasco, and some beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis.

The only place “Seven Psychopaths” falters is in its use of female characters. Abbie Cornish portrays Kaya, Marty’s girlfriend, and she gets very little to do here other than get insulted by Marty and Billy and look pretty pissed off about it. While Cornish does look beautiful when she is pissed, we all know she is capable of much more.

Olga Kurylenko also shows up as Costello’s girlfriend, Angela, and she is a wonderful presence as well but has also been given a role which is smaller than she deserves. Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame fares a little better as Sharice, the girl who accidently loses Costello’s beloved Shih Tzu, but this role is meant as nothing more than a cameo. But considering Cornish and Kurylenko get top billing, you cannot help but expect them to have better characters to play here.

Still, “Seven Psychopaths” is a very entertaining movie and a must for any fan of McDonagh. Yes, it is violent and plays around with all those things which keep getting repeated ad nausea in action movies, but it also is about wanting something more in a story than just guys with guns. I will leave it up to you the viewer to see how McDonagh accomplishes this here.

Also, it will also leave you wondering about the following question: does a human head explode if you shoot it in the right spot? This same question was asked in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz,” and inquiring minds are still looking for an answer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *