Posts Tagged ‘Coen Brothers’

If you point a gun at someone, you’d better make sure you shoot him, and if you shoot him you’d better make sure he’s dead, because if he isn’t then he’s gonna get up and try to kill you.  – Ray.


Marty’s a guy born to get shot someday.


Also quite messy.

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Blood Simple (1984). Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand. 96 minutes. ***

A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (also released as A Simple Noodle Story and Sānqiāng Pāi’àn Jīngqí,  2009). In Mandarin. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Jianquan and Xue Jianchao, from the 1984 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Xiaoshenyang, Yan Ni. **

Here’s the thing, this being the thing, you see. Murder can be an effective way to get what you want, or at least get even with the people you hate, but no matter how careful you are when you do it, no matter how clever your plan to get away with it, you will never quite succeed in wiping away all the blood, or gathering up all the evidence, or tailoring a crime scene that you can leave behind with an easy heart. You’re always gonna leave behind something incriminating, something that points to you even when you’d prefer it to point to someone else. This goes double even if you didn’t commit the murder yourself and simply believe you’re doing a good turn for the person who did.  Because maybe she didn’t. And even that assumes that the corpse you’re burying is really dead. Or, for that matter, unarmed…

These are the lessons taught by any number of noir thrillers, and which are particularly present in Blood Simple, the 1984 breakout film by Joel and Ethan Coen. No monster hit (it only grossed a little more than four million dollars), it did turn out to be the kind of film that establishes entire careers in a single stroke. Stylish, inventive, bloody, dark, kinetic, and often very funny, it marked the Coens as filmmakers to be watched; and established promise that they quickly followed up on with the one-two shot of the kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona and the gangster epic Miller’s Crossing. Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men were all still coming.

The best of the many good things that can be said about this early film is that the maiden effort that achieved such instant notoriety still looks promising, though time it has magnified its flaws and it now resembles what it is: the maiden work of promising but uncertain beginners.

It’s essentially a five-character play, involving a murder driven by adultery, jealousy and greed. What’s remarkable about it is that no character in it ever knows exactly what’s going on; the deception that starts the cycle of bloodshed loops back around and ensnares the deceiver as well, so that nobody involved knows the whole picture at any point, and the ensuing crimes amount to a litany of misunderstandings. (It’s a format the Coens returned to, to much inferior effect, in Burn After Reading, which also starred Frances McDormand.) The Mandarin remake A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop adds an additional character by turning an innocent bystander bartender into a married couple, but otherwise retains this format. At any point, if the characters figure out what the audience knows, there’s no story.

Blood Simple (1984)

Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) is an oaf of a Texas bar owner, whose overbearing ways have driven away his much younger wife Abby (McDormand). You only have to spend a few minutes in Marty’s presence to know why Abby left. He thinks it’s because she’s a slut who sleeps around. Its quite possible that she has already been unfaithful to him; it’s also possible that when she immediately hops into bed with Marty’s bartender Ray (John Getz), it’s out of sheer relief at escaping the blunt instrument she married. There’s certainly nothing in her behavior to suggest that she’s the manipulative bitch Marty imagines her to be. Her tryst with Ray seems less about payback sex than a yearning for the genuine affection that Marty did not provide. Still, Marty does manage to plant the seed of doubt in Ray’s mind, telling him, watch out for her, she’ll betray you, too, and innocently bat her eyes while doing it.

Marty hires the loathsome private eye Visser (M. Emmett Walsh), one of the slimiest villains you’ve ever seen, to kill the two. Visser has no particular problem with killing, but doesn’t cotton to the idea of having Marty hold it over his head afterward, so he makes some fine adjustments in the plan, faking photographic evidence that he’s done the dirty deed, taking Marty’s money, and then killing Marty with Abby’s gun. No fuss, no muss…except that he leaves some evidence behind.

When Ray shows up to collect his back pay, he finds his old boss, who looks dead enough…and the gun that Visser left behind to implicate Abby. He jumps to the only sensible conclusion, that Abby has killed her husband…and immediately starts cleaning up the crime scene to protect her.

Unfortunately, he has to finish Marty off, to do it…and later, when he tells Abby what he’s done, she claims to have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

So what we’ve got here, by the midway point, is an epic three-way misunderstanding.

Ray is driven to the inescapable conclusion that Marty told him the truth about Abby, that she’s a conniving femme fatale who uses men without conscience. He believes that she tried to commit murder, that he risked his own ass to help her out, and that she now won’t carry her part of the weight.

Abby, who actually does care for Ray, honestly doesn’t understand what he’s talking about and is only frightened by his sudden coldness toward her and the hints of violent confrontations between him and Marty.

Visser, who thought he committed the perfect murder, is now bedeviled by a disappearing body and the loss of incriminating evidence. One important missing item is an engraved cigarette lighter easily identifiable as his, that he never quite succeeds in finding under the pile of fish Marty caught on his alibi vacation, that in one of the film’s more visceral gags are left unattended for days and days, and must grow more and more malodorous as the level of communal guilt rises. He thinks that Ray and Abby possess the evidence of the crime and intend on holding it over him.

The final character, that bartender, is only involved to the extent that he thinks Ray has burglarized the joint.

There are more complications than these, but that’s the essential shape of it. Again, nobody sees the whole picture. Nobody but the audience knows everything that’s going on. By the time the film reaches its memorably violent conclusion, Abby completely misunderstands why she’s being shot at. She thinks it’s just Marty being Marty.

It doesn’t add up to much, really, except as a self-contained better mousetrap. It falls apart on close examination, with a nest of logical flaws that include just how long it takes the chain-smoking Visser to realize that he’s lost his lighter. It’s not a long film, but it still drags in spots (even after the so-called “Director’s Cut” re-release, which unlike most of its kind is actually shorter)

There are some hints of future greatness in the dialogue, always a Coen strong point. In many films made by lesser talents, characters speak what amounts to a dry commentary track on the plot. In Coen Brothers films, they go off on tangents, they expose weird bits of business from their pasts, they reveal too much, they drop hints of lives existing just off the boundaries of the screen. It can be a pleasure watching Coen Brothers characters go off the verbal reservation. There’s a lot of this in Blood Simple, much of it Visser’s off-color humor, but for my money the best character moment is an extended bedtime conversation between Abby and Ray, over her husband Marty’s confession that, deep down, he might be  secretly “anal.” She imparts this information as if it’s fraught with desperate significance, and Ray responds with, essentially, an awed, well, what about that.  To paraphrase what Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride: that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means. As “anal” in this context would seem to mean an obsessive attention to detail that might include obsessive cleanliness, and there’s nothing in Marty’s behavior that renders this likely or even relevant, there’s really no telling what Marty believed he was confessing to (latent homosexuality?), how Abby interpreted it, or why it so mightily impresses Ray. They might be discussing three different things. If the moment establishes anything, it’s that Abby and Ray do seem to be on the same page, before the nested misunderstandings start multiplying and drive a wedge between them. 

But Blood Simple was most impressive with its set-pieces.

One involved the disposal of a body at the side of the road in the dead of night, that must be hurried before the oncoming car now visible by its headlights comes close enough for its driver to see what’s happening. That got re-thought and restaged in their much better film Fargo, which (all together now!) was yet another that also starred McDormand.

A Great Climax

The other is the final showdown between Abby and Visser, who is only visible to her as the hand groping for her through an open window. Imagining it Marty’s, she impales it against the sill with a knife. Unable to free his hand, Visser is reduced to firing shots through the wall, admitting shafts of bright light to stream into the darkened room where Abby hides, and weakening the wall he must physically hammer through in order to free his hand.

In the end, Abby defeats Visser without ever laying eyes on him. From the next room, she cries, “I’m not afraid of you, Marty.”

Visser, flat on his back beneath the sink, looking up at the plumbing, can only laugh. “Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”

Abby knows that’s not Ray. But, from her perspective, who the hell is it? She is not destined to know, at least not as long as we’re watching.

The final shot is Visser staring up at a single dangling drop of water that has collected under the pipes. It dangles maddeningly, prior to falling.

Visser seems more disturbed by that drop of water, a harbinger of death, than he is by the bullet that struck him.

At the moment it falls, we cut to black.


A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop (2009)

Blood Simple was a breakout effort by new filmmakers with a terrific future still ahead of them. Its 2009 remake was the work of Zhang Yimou, an important, established director whose international hits included Raise The Red Lantern and the beautiful, fanciful martial arts films Hero and House Of Flying Daggers.

Unfortunately, the results are not what they should be.

Moving the action to medieval China required some substantial changes, among them the explanation for the presence of the firearm that causes so many problems. In modern-day Texas, it is not surprising that a churlish bar owner will come to a bad end from a handgun he originally bought his wife to carry in her handbag; that can be established in a line of dialogue, and immediately accepted as given. In A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop, the presence of the weapon requires more backstory. It’s an exotic device from a distant land, that is brought to China by a Turkish trader who also tries to sell the titular lady an actual cannon. She buys the handgun as much for its novelty value as for protection from her wealthy and much older husband.

Unlike the apparently innocent Abby of Blood Simple, the wife here is a much harsher piece of work. Sure, she’s abused by her remote husband for not producing an heir, but she’s also the nasty, conniving sort that Marty merely imagines Abby to be. She carries out her affair with a co-worker in open defiance of her marriage, and local laws that declare adultery a serious crime.

The bar of the original is changed to a “noodle shop,” essentially a roadhouse restaurant in the middle of nowhere, that but for one squadron of local police officers never seems to get any customers. There is still an impressive and extended narrative set-piece, unfortunately a highlight of the film, where the various noodle shop workers spin and juggle the dough prior to cutting the noodles into strips. If you like watching pizza shop guys juggle dough, this is the same thrill, only more so. It is admittedly dazzling, in effect a dance number. It still should not be a highlight of the movie.

Another highlight would be the surrounding desert, an alien and forbidding landscape of rolling rock formations, striated by bands of scarlet color. Every shot of this backdrop is absolutely gorgeous. The characters keep finding excuses – not just corpse disposal, but also romantic assignations – to keep going out there. There is no societal context. Oddly for a filmmaker whose martial arts films had such sweep and depth and scale, there is no sense of the surrounding world being inhabited by anybody but this small handful of people.

This movie’s assassin is a corrupt local policeman. He is no colorful Visser, but a blank-eyed, stone-faced killer of little affect, who is for vast stretches of the film perversely funny for the matter-of-fact emptiness with which he keeps pursuing his various missions of evidence disposal. It’s a one-note characterization that gets old. The bystander bartender character of the original is here split into two characters, a comical married couple whose own reasons for breaking into their employer’s safe complicate matters still further; the man has a truly unfortunate pair of buck teeth that are distracting as hell until they lead to a sound-effects gag original to this film. It’s one fraction of a second of pure genius. But then it ends. 

The language barrier forces us to abdicate any discussion over whether any of the dialogue is as finely etched as that in the Coen film. Wordplay is, alas, the first thing to go when a film must be watched in translation, and neither one of us speaks Mandarin. We report that the film was praised by those in the know, for clever dialect humor involving the comic-relief married couple. It might actually be scintillating. We’ll accept that it likely is, and move on. 

The major set-pieces are duplicated, all of them to lesser effect. And none are missed by as wide a margin as the finale.

It made sense in Blood Simple for Visser to shoot at Ray and Abby through glass windows where they can be clearly seen from a rooftop across the street.

It makes less sense for the policeman of this film to fire a fusillade of arrows into a wooden house where the windows are mostly shaded and where there is no obvious line of sight.

It was stunning in Blood Simple when Abby grabbed Visser’s hand through the window and used a knife previously unseen by us to crucify him through the palm.

It was less effective in this film when the scene is retold from the woman’s point of view and we’re privy to both her indecision and the critical moment when she spots something to stab him with.

It was suspenseful as hell in Blood Simple when Visser was  hammering on the wall to try to break through it and free his hand, while Abby returned through the hallway to retrieve her handgun.

It was much less so in this film when the suspense of that scene is truncated and the besieged woman got to her weapon without difficulty.

The final exchange between unseen murderer and intended victim plays out almost word-for-word here as it does it Blood Simple – except in Mandarin, of course but to lesser emotional payoff. Blood Simple’s Abby says it with sad defiance; this woman screams it in rage. Abby’s approach is better, as it underlines our awareness that we’ve just seen this woman live through a genuinely tragic series of events that she might never fully understand. This movie’s screaming harpy was always a nasty piece of work. She’ll get over it.

And we get that dangling droplet of water, too…though it’s not so much a brilliant sight gag, here, as a shout-out to a much better previous film. Only those who saw Blood Simple first, and know it well, will even appreciate its significance. 

The Droplet Falls

Blood Simple, an effective little thriller not quite good enough to add up to more than the sum of its parts, but nevertheless the first substantial achievement in the career of two great filmmakers. A Woman, A Gun, And A Noodle Shop, a much inferior follow-up by  a filmmaker who’s done much better, and will again.

And now, the wife peers through the bullet hole in the bathroom door, to deliver her own verdict…


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Blood Simple (1984). Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring John Getz, Dan Hedaya, M. Emmett Walsh, Frances McDormand. 96 minutes. **

A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop (also released as A Simple Noodle Story and Sānqiāng Pāi’àn Jīngqí,  2009). In Mandarin. Directed by Zhang Yimou. Written by Shi Jianquan and Xue Jianchao, from the 1984 film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Sun Honglei, Ni Dahong, Xiaoshenyang, Yan Ni. **


This is one of those times when I really feel as if I have nothing special to say. 

I neither liked nor terribly disliked either film.  The Chinese remake I found to be beautifully filmed, but peopled by characatures, while the Coen bros had characters, but little substance.

Both films left me with a why did I bother empty feeling.

If I had to recommend one over the other could I?  Maybe.  I can see the spark that would grow in the brothers filmmaking lives, but at this point it is an embryonic ember in desperate need of screenwriting oxygen.  And  the Chinese film is more of a tribute to the original story, rather than a rethinking.

All in all, watch both films for yourselves and see which side the bloody dagger strikes you.






commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. **** Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Other Known Versions Not Covered Here: True Grit (TV-movie, possibly a series pilot, 1978; starring Warren Oates as Rooster Cogburn; more a sequel than an actual remake); also Rooster Cogburn (1975), theatrical sequel starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn.


It all comes down to dirt and lighting.

There are any number of great movie westerns prior to 1969, when True Grit was made, but to modern eyes, even many of the best of them look awfully antiseptic, more like the theme-park frontier town of Westworld (1973) than the actual dusty, unwashed, primitive, blood-soaked actual American west. The cowboys and gunfighters riding for days on end to get from one clapboard outpost of civilization to another may never change their clothes once between Desolation and Despair, but somehow they almost look minutes from their last hot shower, a short drive from a clothing change, one phone call away from a proper dentist. There are exceptions, of course; you need look no further than The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) to find a town where the saloon is clearly a dusty refuge for dusty men, and people organize lynching parties because that may be the only entertainment option that beats another long night spent listening to their grizzled neighbors suck food particles from between their few remaining teeth. But that movie was in black and white, which among other virtues can cut to the heart of the matter by eliminating the often false gloss bestowed by color. In all too many others, even those that work on other levels, the saloons, the hotels, the general stores, and the sheriff’s offices are all awash with steady light even at midnight, the illumination suggesting vast track lighting just above the frame; and the costumes suggesting that nobody in the old west was ever dirty, unless they were drunks who could be reformed and bad guys too mean by their very natures to rush down to Pop’s General Store for a six-pack of Irish Spring.

In 1969, this was just starting to change for the dying cinematic genre known as the western, in part because of the influence of foreign filmmakers like Sergio Leone and domestic ones like Sam Peckinpah, not too mention the technical advances that permitted scenes to be filmed in natural or dim light. The Wild Bunch (1969), released at almost the same time as the original True Grit, was then revolutionary in its presentation of a world where life was cheap, gunfights were not just deadly but ugly and brutal, and the right people didn’t always survive. But we were still years off off from the saloons of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Unforgiven (1992), bars where it really didn’t matter whether anybody had bothered to clean your glass or sweep the floor – let alone mop up the bloodstains – because it was just too dang-blasted dark in there to tell the difference anyway. The brightly-lit, well-scrubbed westerns sometimes give the impression that there wouldn’t be all those gunfights in the street if there weren’t some people created, perhaps off the assembly line, just plain bad; the newer ones that did a better job at capturing the ambience establish at a glance that life in this place and time is brutal and short and that regular showdowns between killers shooting at one another at close range might be the only natural reaction.

There are hints of this in the Hathaway version of True Grit, which movie icon John Wayne called the first real role anybody had given him in twenty years. You couldn’t not provide those hints and still provide a recognizable version of the hard-drinking, one-eyed, fat old Marshal Reuben Cogburn. His living conditions are exactly the same as those described in the Charles Portis novel, and later portrayed in the Coen Brothers remake. He lives in the back room of a dry-goods store, on what looks like a hideously uncomfortable rope bed, with missing cords that ensure he sinks halfway to the floor throughout the night. He shares his space with sacks of grain and a well-fed population of rats who feed with relative impunity thanks to a cat named General who can’t be bothered to kill them. At night, he drinks himself to oblivion with whiskey he has confiscated during his law-enforcement activities of the day; since he spends nothing on booze and doesn’t seem to spend much on rent or clothing, and has no dependents, it’s a relative mystery what he does with the pittance he earns for going after fugitives. (My theory is that he buys even more booze.)

Any close examination of this lifestyle, added to the subsequent revelations that he’s estranged from his family, can only establish him as a wreck of a man, living an empty and joyless existence punctuated only by the one thing he’s good at, killing.

And yet, with the evidence right there in front of our eyes, it’s not the impression we come away with watching John Wayne play the part.

In the 1969 True Grit, Reuben Cogburn is downright cuddly: a standup fella we’re downright happy to accompany for two hours.

It’s not due to any failure on his part as an actor. Though he did not possess anything close to the on-screen versatility of Jeff Bridges, John Wayne’s movie career possessed its share of nuanced roles, challenging roles, and even just-plain unlikeable roles. You only have to see his turns in Red River  (1948) or The Searchers  (1956) to know that he was capable of capturing a certain authentic human darkness.

But that human darkness seems absent from the 1969 True Grit. That movie’s Cogburn may be an alcoholic, poverty-stricken fat man who happily takes on the job of killing a malefactor in exchange for what we would now consider spare change, but the film makes him a comforting presence in a world where, thanks to him, all the correct people will soon be killed, and everything will turn out to be more or less all right. It’s a performance that pleased his fans and won him the only Academy Award of his long career. But it somehow doesn’t feel quite real. It feels more like it emanates from that theme-park west of the brightly lit saloons rather than the muddy, messy realities of the actual one.


Well, there are many reasons for that, among them Wayne’s shaky health at the time. The movie protects him very well, but he had just lost a lung from cancer, and couldn’t walk much more than ten paces without exhausting the little breath he had. On screen this is easy as attribute to the character’s fat; there is only one moment where he seems to lose his wind in the middle of a long speech and has to take a fresh breath in order to continue. He’s also acting alongside Kim Darby, who was stiff and wooden and eight years too old for her part; and the even more wooden and charisma-free Glen Campbell, latest in a series of pop singers considered square even at the time who got shoehorned into a number of Wayne’s movies in what amounted to a transparent and spectacularly tin-eared attempt to court the youth audience. (Others had been Frankie Avalon and Rick Nelson.) Actors blossom opposite good actors and look worse opposite bad ones, and the only great actors in the 1969 True Grit are Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, neither of whom is on screen much.

But the real problem is that John Wayne is not playing Reuben Cogburn, but John Wayne: and not the John Wayne he actually was, a guy who loved Gilbert and Sullivan and harbored doubts about his acting abilities, but “John Wayne,” the character played by John Wayne who may have had different names and job titles over the years but who was always recognizably “John Wayne,” an iconic figure who rarely altered from one movie to the next.

This can be defined as a movie star’s job, even when that movie star frequently plays other people; Bruce Willis is not always “Bruce Willis” and Clint Eastwood is not always “Clint Eastwood” and Jack Nicholson is not always “Jack Nicholson,” but you know exactly what I mean when I put those names in quotes and you know exactly what I mean when I put “John Wayne” in quotes.  By 1969 it referred to a rough-edged, tough-talking frontier man with a lifetime of standing up for the right thing, who will not bullshit and not waver in his duty, and who will at one point prove that he has a heart even if he plays all his emotional cards close to the vest.

The second you see John Wayne playing “John Wayne” in the rancid little bed where Reuben Cogburn lays his drunken carcass to sleep, you know that it’s really “John Wayne” and that you should trust him implicitly.

By contrast, the 2010 Coen Brothers film has as its center a lead, Jeff Bridges, who might have a gallery of great performances behind him, but who has never developed a persona that amounts to his name in quotes. He doesn’t bring Reuben Cogburn to him, as John Wayne did in 1969, but instead goes to Reuben Cogburn. And so you begin with an advantage that services the story of the Charles Portis novel: namely, that you don’t walk in already knowing who this guy is. You can see how debased he is, and this time it isn’t a beloved actor performing a bit, but a character whose circumstances can be felt. You don’t know what he’s going to do. You certainly don’t know whether he’s going to rise to the occasion, and how. You may really know, especially if you’ve seen the prior movie or read the novel, but you can be a little less confident, a little less certain that this Reuben Cogburn won’t let you down.

This permits a scene that never would have appeared in any John Wayne movie, the one in the 2010 film where Cogburn gets drunk and discouraged on the trail and declares that he’s tired of hunting a bunch of bad guys he ain’t gonna find anyway, and that he’s giving up. John Wayne’s Cogburn never wavered. He was gonna find his man no matter what. This Reuben is, at heart, a mean old failure who gave up on his family and took to the bottle and pretty much ended up a nothing; giving up is after all what he does, and it makes everything that follows play at a much higher level.

There are many other things the Coen Brothers did much better, in 2010, than Henry Hathaway and company did in 1969. They used a grungier, and more authentic sense of time and place. They cast a better, age-appropriate actress as Mattie and made damn sure that the movie was about her, not about the hero she enlisted. For the most part, they cast better actors in the supporting roles (or at least using some who performed at the same level that Hopper and Duvall did in 1969).  They honored the dialogue and distinctive voice of the Portis novel. They preserved the downbeat ending. They staged just about every dramatic high point (and I include the famous action climax, with the line “Fill your hands,  you son of a bitch!”), better than Hathaway did, among other things making sure we remember that the heroine is a 14-year-old girl who, formidable as she might be, is still a child who knows that she initiated this trail of vengeance and must now react to the sight of bad men reduced to cooling meat before her eyes.

This is crucial to capturing the depths of the story. In the 1969 film, when Mattie falls in the snake pit at the moment her violent quest reaches its conclusion, it is just another thing that happens. In the 2010 film, we are reminded (consciously or not) that she has compromised her innocence, and perhaps damned herself.

The Coens also trusted the audience in a manner that the makers of the 1969 film did not, by sometimes trusting us to figure things out for ourselves. In 1969, John Wayne’s Cogburn saw Mattie crossing the river on horseback after being left behind, and beamed, “She reminds me of me.” (There was, in 1969 movieland, no higher praise.) In 2010, Jeff Bridges’s Cogburn just watches her, his eyes stony. His thoughts, his emotions, are his own. When he subsequently stops La Boeuf from beating her with a switch, it’s possible to debate whether that’s because he thinks her chastisement has gone far enough…or despises La Boeuf… or has just been taken by surprise by an actual feeling for the girl. In 2010, we can’t know. In 1969, John Wayne told us.

It’s no contest, artistically, which is more satisfying.


{Response by Judi Castro

True Grit. *** Starring John Wayne, Glenn Campbell, Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Henry Hathaway. Released 1969.

True Grit. ***1/2 Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailie Steinfeld, Josh Brolin. Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, from the novel by Charles Portis. Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Released 2010.

Let me get this out of the way first off…  I am NOT a fan of westerns.  I had my fill of cowboy films every Saturday afternoon of my early years.  They were as inescapable to me as the war films on veteran’s day weekends.  Every saturday I was thrown into some gunfight or Indian attack on the fort or whatever.  Just the perfect fare for a young reader in love with fantasy/science fiction/horror and historical biography. Right!   But, a few so called westerns stood apart from this pack of blood.   True Grit was one of the noble breed that fell into my “not really a western” group of acceptable films. 

The story I remembered from my childhood told of vengeance by a person I could relate to.   Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, was in her later teens, but still seeking the man who killed her Pa.  I could go with that, I have a Pa, I would kill anyone who shot him, so that worked for me.  Hiring John Wayne,(bigger than life in every film I remembered), smart move on her part, even if he was playing at being drunk (an unconvincing act by him for the most part).   So far, no problem.  Then along comes  Glen Campbell and blows every line he can get his mouth around.  The man couldn’t even die well.  I mean geesh!  But at least his part was small and I could forget it between viewings.  Because, alas, yes, there were many, MANY, viewings of this film.  It starred on of my Pa’s film icons and in one of his most famous roles, and therefore became required watching.

Now, jump ahead 40 or so years, and the Coen brothers, who I consider to be a good film team despite the tendency to allow the fool to overcome,  saunter in and show us that the movie I have a vague fondness for from my childhood has nothing whatsoever to do with the original material, and they are going to show us all how it should have been put together.  Quite the act of chutzpah on their part, wouldn’t you say?   I mean my Pa couldn’t have been the only one to enforce the love of this classic onto his impressionable children, so the outrage heard around the net(world)  was understandable.

But, they did  what they set out to do.  They brought True Grit back to its source material and hired great actors to play the iconic roles.  Joel and Ethan Coen gained a new notch on my respectability meter with their production. 

I won’t compare the actors in the roles, it would be unfair to the original.  This True Grit is a capital W western, a film (not a movie) to be watched over and over.  The scenes and lines to be savored like a great meal.  So fully satisfying that even I, the hater of westerns, fell in love with this production. 

In writing this, I have not read Adam’s portion, and I will continue to give my opinions in this manner.  I hope that this format will be able to give our readers a glimpse into our discussions in the car and our living room, after we have watched these films and the remakes.