By Stephen Mullen
It was a gutsy move remaking a beloved John Wayne movie, the one where he won his Oscar, but the Coen brothers have never been shy about that kind of thing. They remade The Ladykillers, after all. They’ve made disguised versions of Hammett (Miller’s Crossing), Cain (either Blood Simple or The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the book of Job (A Serious Man.) They’ve parodied Capra, Roadrunner, Chandler. They’ve pretended to adapt Homer! Taking on the Duke is right in character.
It was a gutsy move, but a good one. It gives you what you can ask from a remake, it works on its own merits without undermining the original’s merits. The story, I imagine, is familiar enough (I hope it’s familiar enough that I don’t need to note that there are spoilers here): Mattie Ross, aged 14, goes to Fort Smith Arkansas to retrieve the body of her murdered father, then sets out to find the killer. She hires Rooster Cogburn, the toughest marshal in the place, a man with true grit – but they are joined by a younger, flashier Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is after the same man for shooting a senator and a dog. They head off into the Choctaw Nation, squabbling as they go, forming and dissolving alliances as they pass through the wilderness, tracking Tom Chaney the killer and Ned Pepper the bandit chieftain. They catch them up, Mattie herself almost gets Chaney, but the other two are obliged to rescue her. Cogburn fights one of the most famous gunfights ever put on screen, Mattie falls into a pit full of snakes, and Cogburn carries her across the Indian Territory to find a doctor. This plot is the same in its outline in both films – the Coens’ changes serve mainly to shift the focus from Rooster to Mattie, and from John Wayne to the ensemble. The films look different, they are shot in very different locations – if you were inclined to Metaphors, you might say they do with the story what they do with the locations: replace the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains and John Wayne’s star power with the plainer beauty of the West Texas and New Mexico hills and woods and more focus on the whole cast, on Mattie and LaBoeuf, and the world they move through. It’s a harder country, flatter, but full of jagged upcroppings of rock, loose stands of trees, caves, pits, and dugouts, a world of holes and mysteries, where anything or anyone could matter, and you can’t know how they matter until you are past them.
The difference is very noticeable in the way the Coens use their bit players. I don’t want to spend the whole essay comparing the two films, but this is hard to miss. The small parts in Hathaway’s film are usually fairly straightforward – the character actors come on, deliver their lines, support the story as they need to, and that is that. But in the Coen’s version, almost everyone Mattie meets is made indelible. The Coens do this in all their films – they love their actors, and give all of them a chance to shine. So all the bit parts get clever, carefully written lines, that give us a chance to savor the words (the archaic words and syntax make this a field day for the brothers), the accents, the tones; all the faces, beards and hair, clothes, even the smoking apparati are detailed, eccentric, memorable. The 1969 film has some of it – Strother Martin and the crooks (Jeff Corey and Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper etc.) are given similar business – but for the Coens, it is almost universal. The men being hanged make speeches; an old lady in the crowd talks about “him with the mustaches;” the undertaker gets an Irish accent and a catch phrase or two; the lawyers are allowed to ham it up to the heavens. Even the stable boy at Stonehill’s place gets a couple lines and some attitude, and Grandma Turner gets to snore and steal the blankets expressively.
That’s always one of the sources of pleasure in the Coens’ work, their love for those textures, their exaggerated style, their love of strangeness and strange people for their own sake. It’s showy – but it’s a generous kind of showing off, since they are giving actors (and cinematographers and set and costume designers and everyone else) the chance to show off too. And it does its thematic and dramatic work. It spreads the story out, makes everything you see seem important. All those eccentric faces and voices stop the story – or pull you away from the plot for a minute or two, make everything you see take over the film for a shot or two. They’re like stones in the path of the plot. Certainly for Mattie, everything she encounters, every person, every piece of the landscape, is a kind of obstacle, a potential trap, to be overcome, escaped, or at least figured out. It works with the more important characters, too – it evens things out, both by putting Mattie’s perceptions at the center of the film, and by making LaBoeuf and Rooster a bit more balanced.
LaBoeuf’s character gains as much as anything in the remake. It isn’t necessarily that he is on screen more than in Hathaway’s version, or involved in the story more – it’s that he becomes something more than a sidekick. The sense of rivalry between LaBoeuf and Rooster is more significant – their shifting importance to Mattie is given more weight. Some of this is obviously due to rewriting, the way LaBoeuf is more independent, striking out on his own, acting apart from them, and thus getting out of Rooster’s shadow for a while. But it’s also in Matt Damon’s performance and the Coens’ depiction of the character. All the little bits of business he gets, the jingling spurs and big pipe, his attempts at sophistication (spilling the banks of English), do as much as the big dialogue scenes to put him on something like a par with Rooster.
Though the changes in Rooster do their own work. There is no point in trying to replicate John Wayne’s star power – and given how much fun he is in the first film, no point in trying to “correct” it. There’s nothing wrong with being a star. Jeff Bridges takes it from another angle – he brings Rooster down to human scale, seedier, deglamorized, not so much a tough guy as a mean old man, introduced as a voice from the jakes. He’s still a hero in the end, but on the way, there’s nothing too impressive about him. Most of what he does, on the trail, is a result of his poise (as Mattie puts it), rather than feats of strength or competence – his confidence, his fearlessness, the way he always acts as though he is in control of every situation, gets him through. He always keeps his head, and brazens his way through everything. To a fault – as he keeps up the front even when he is very much out of control.
All these things add up – the grittier look, the balance among the characters, the strong individuality of the bit players as well as the stars, and all the details in the decor – they do many things. It is more realistic than the first version, though it might be better to say it’s more in tune with post-Deadwood ideas of what westerns are supposed to look like. It’s realism has limits – it’s designed and shot with great care, but it’s mostly concentrating on the surfaces. That’s typical of the Coens – I defy anyone to keep track of time and space in their films. They don’t seem to care about how long things take, or how far into the Indian Territory these people have gone – they care about the details, the faces and voices, the words people speak, the quality of the light and the color of the sky, the way a tree limb moves after a body has been cut down from it. That’s a source of some of the criticism they take, the way they always seem to magnify the immediate details, the way they let a bit player take over the film for thirty seconds, the way a bit of decor or costume, or even just a sound, can seem to overshadow the broader picture. People sometimes say they are cartoonish, and yes, that is a good word for it – the exaggeration, the habit of pulling out single, significant details, even the grotesquerie, are all elements in how cartoons work. But I don’t know how that can be a criticism – Krazy Kat and Pogo are cartoons; Maus and Watchmen are cartoons; Bugs Bunny is a cartoon. Cartoons are a fairly obvious part of the Coens’ influence – and like the best comics and cartoons, their films give both the immediate pleasure of the surfaces and a deeper meaning too. Their style serves this story – they keep close to Mattie’s experiences and perceptions – she is in an alien world, everything is new, and the style, the world of holes, of people and things looming up suddenly, people and things whose importance you can’t really know until you have gotten past them, all fits with her perspective. And for all the realism and surface detailing of the film, it has many qualities of dreams and fairy tales. Look at how the light works – smoke and dust in the interiors, light coming from visible sources (lamps, fires, sun streaming through windows) – it’s realistic, but it’s also metaphorical, even magical. It casts a fog around things, keeps things a little unclear, neatly signifying Mattie’s experience of being in this strange world, and her recollection of it from the perspective of her narration. And – yes – magical: think of how LaBoeuf first appears in her room with a jingle of spurs, the sound of fire in his pipe, and a puff of smoke.
By the end of course, the film has completely given itself over to a dream. Rooster’s midnight ride and run to carry Mattie to safety completely slips the bounds of earth. Reflecting, all at once, the mythical quality of the story, and Mattie’s haziness, both because of her injury and the passage of time. And, in Bridges’ collapse at the end, his last line – “I grow old” – the shift from Wayne’s superhuman heroism to Bridges’ human version.
I will end with this. It is a film that rests on the border between different worlds – civilization and the Indian Territory; law and outlaws; Mattie herself, coming of age – all borders that remain a bit ill-defined. The question of borders and boundaries (where you draw them, and the ways they can never quite be clear) is one of the fundamental themes of the Western as a genre. It’s also one with most of the Coen brothers’ work – and while this is the only one of their films that is, strictly speaking, a western, almost all of their films are shot full of the imagery and themes of westerns. More than one of them are set in the west, and use that landscape much as they use it here. They are western filmmakers even when they are not making westerns.