“True Grit” hits theaters today. This is a fairly big deal for a variety of reasons that are real, imagined, possible and personal.
For me, as well as countless other devotees of the Coen Brothers, it’s exciting to see them returning to the Western, a genre they so cleanly streamlined, modernized and reconfigured in 2007’s Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.” Of course, that’s minor nonsense, just a piddling subplot compared to the major thing exciting folks like myself. Namely, the Coens are reteaming with Jeff Bridges for the first time since 1998’s “The Big Lebowski” (as you can tell from the image atop this site, I am a fan of that movie).
It’d be one thing if it were just the Coens and Bridges doing another movie, any movie, any movie at all. But because it’s “True Grit,” it takes on an added significance. The novel by Charles Portis (who has only grown in notoriety since the book’s publication) was first made into a movie in 1969, a star vehicle that wasn’t wholly faithful to the source material because it had to be faithful to the requirements of a John Wayne film. It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, and Wayne wasn’t bad in it (his performance could best be described as “very John Wayne-y”), but he was 62 and had another decade to live (as it turned out), so he was rewarded with the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in the form of a Best Actor trophy that year (besting Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, both nominated for “Midnight Cowboy,” as well as Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton). The movie was fine, but the source material remained, almost as if waiting for a proper and fitting cinematic translation. It was waiting for an adaptation that nobody was really clamoring for, yet in the right hands could be perfect.
The notion of remaking a film that had an iconic John Wayne performance doesn’t seem so perverse with the Coens involved. The premise, bare and simple, seems custom-fitted for their particular whimsies and devices: a 14-year-old daughter hires an alcohol mess of a U.S. marshal to help her find the man who murdered her father. Add to that the presence of Bridges, for whom they crafted his indelible role as the Dude, and toss in Matt Damon (as a Texas Ranger who joins the hunt) and Josh Brolin (as the murderer being hunted), and this thing takes on a particular mystique to a particular segment of the populace. That the Coens are not three years removed from winning an Oscar for adapting another vengeful Western is fine, but that Bridges just won a long-denied Best Actor for “Crazy Heart” helped stoke awareness and anticipation to the highest levels possible.
There is also the very real and (to certain folks, like myself) vital fact that this is the last of 2010’s true Oscar contenders to hit theaters. While this movie is a long shot for actually winning any awards — not with “The Social Network” and David Fincher, “The King’s Speech” and Tom Hooper, Colin Firth and James Franco, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Helena Bonham Carter all frontrunners for the categories in which this movie will contend — it is nonetheless the final piece of the Oscar puzzle.
For me, personally, it represents the final must-see film of 2010 hitting wide release. There was a relative paucity of these big, interesting-looking-to-me mainstream movies this year — some form of the list would include “Inception,” “Toy Story 3,” “The Social Network,” “TRON: Legacy,” “Black Swan,” “127 Hours,” “The Town,” “The Fighter” and “Somewhere” (the last two have not opened everywhere, at least, but “The Fighter” is in many theaters and “Somewhere” also debuts today) — but this one was always high on the list.
So what say the critics? Rotten Tomatoes has it at 96 percent (from all critics and top critics alike), compared to an 82 from Metacritic.
In the only review I really care about, Ebert says he’s “surprised the Coens made this film, so unlike their other work, except in quality.” Other reviews mirror this point of view, that this is as straightforward a movie as we’ve ever seen from the Coens. As Ebert puts it, “[T]his isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky. It’s as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry… So let me praise it for what it is, a splendid Western.”
This has been an odd, up-and-down year for the movies. Long stretches have gone where I have not seen anything worth leaving the house, while other brief windows have been packed with multiple must-see films hitting theaters (beyond this, I still need to see “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter” and “Somewhere”). Even if this is the last truly great film of 2010, it still sounds like a hell of a conclusion.