He [Jeff Bridges as The Dude] just totally got it. Toward the end of shooting he’d just ask us, “Did the dude blaze one on the way here?” and if we said yes, he’d just rub his eyes.
–Ethan Coen, Regis Dialogue, September 25, 2009
Former Walker Regis Dialogue honorees Joel and Ethan Coen have released their newest film: True Grit, a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 classic. The original film, based on a novel by notoriously underrated American author Charles Portis, snared John Wayne his one and only oscar (for best actor). If the Hathaway True Grit was an exercise in nostalgia (coming out a few years too late for the spaghetti western’s last hurrah) then the Coens’ remake is even more nostalgic, if not retro, passe, or god forbid, metanostalgic.
A remake of a western coming at a time when westerns have all but disappeared, this is a film that no one asked for, but that, curiously, becomes a strength. With an audience who has never seen the original film (except for the old and the obsessed) the Coens are freed to draw from it as much as they want or choose to draw directly from the Portis text. So, while some scenes seem like shot-for-shot remakes of Hathaway’s film, others come completely out of nowhere.
While much of the first True Grit became iconic, what really stuck was one character: John Wayne’s Rupert “Rooster” Cogburn. A “one-eyed fat man” who is also a drunk and somewhat inept cowboy Rooster is–despite his handicaps–tough as nails, exhibiting true grit. The character stuck and Wayne even went on to play him again alongside Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, his penultimate performance. But the Coen True Grit casts Jeff Bridges in his place, an actor they haven’t worked with since his portrayal of “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski (1998).
And, despite his performance in Tron Legacy, in which he plays (essentially) The Dude, Bridges is able to occupy the role of Rooster Cogburn relatively smoothly. If anything, Bridges plays him as more drunk, cantankerous, and inept than John Wayne ever could. Drunkenly mumbling to levels never before reached in Hollywood, some of Bridges’ lines come out too garbled to understand. And despite the excellent writing, his mumbling is a good thing. Bridges is able to take some of the grace and dignity away from John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, making him truly gritty.
True Grit opens on the coattails of A Serious Man, the Coens’ micro-epic on the trials of middle-class life, and despite its terrific performances, to me True Grit falls short. It feels more like a well-done genre film than like the transcendent classics that the Coens have put together in the past. With a tacked-on epilogue that seems disappointing and unnecessary, even the beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins and the beautiful score by Carter Burwell can make this film only good, not great. But this follows in their historical structure, making a good film followed by a real knockout.