I doubt writer and directors Joel and Ethan Coen would call this film a remake. There seems to be a stigma against remakes, so no one in Hollywood wants to say their movie is one, despite the fact that every other film that comes out nowadays is a remake. The Coen brothers would more likely argue that this is merely another adaptation of the Charles Portis novel.
This suits me fine because I've not seen the John Wayne version, as I would only use it as a basis of comparison, probably to this film's detriment. The last film released that was a remake of an old Western was 3:10 to Yuma (2007). Like that film, this one looks authentic and is very entertaining to watch.
Jeff Bridges stars as Rooster Cogburn, an old, gristled, slightly drunken, federal marshal who works as an Arkansas bounty hunter in the days following the Civil War. Matt Damon co-stars as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is on the hunt for a murderous outlaw named Tom Chaney. The two of them team up when the father of a teenage girl is killed by Chaney and she hires Cogburn to bring Chaney to justice.
Both Bridges and Damon are Oscar-winners but Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the teenage girl, Mattie Ross, steals the show. Her character is the first and last one you see in this movie and from the instant she appears on screen and utters her first sentence, you fall in love with her. Despite being only 14, she's very mature, very strong, very smart and very saucy, as LBoeuf describes her, or "a pill," as the Coen brothers describe her.
She's the perfect foil for the two main men and in fact for all the male characters. She's not afraid to stand up to these fellows, and not only talk back to them in just as stern a voice but be a very tough negotiator in the various business arrangements she has to settle.
John Wayne was so liked in the role of Rooster Cogburn that it spurred a sequel, but if the character of Mattie was as well-written and well-acted then as now, the sequel should have focused on her. Yet, Bridges is very compelling here, and his fat, unkempt, one-eyed sharpshooter persona is quite well done.
What perhaps isn't well-done is the ending to this film. Maybe, it's just me, but I have not been satisfied with the ending of a single Coen brothers film going back to their Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men (2007). The endings to their movies feel so unsatisfying that they to me might as well not be endings at all, but almost quick and convenient wrap-ups, non-punctuated, often weird stops.
Maybe, their climaxes just aren't that exciting to me or maybe I simply don't accept the anti-climactic natures of them and their denouements just feel like unnecessary drags. For example, the main thrust of this movie is an inevitable showdown between Mattie and Tom, an event that doesn't happen until an hour and half into this film and then is quickly settled in five minutes.
Josh Brolin, who plays Tom Chaney, does a great job of establishing that character in the five minutes of screen time he's given, but it isn't enough. It feels like there's such a build up to his character and to the eventual showdown that must involve him, that when we got there, the ends don't justify the means.
I understand that the final showdown and having it be a grand, overly exciting thing probably wasn't the purpose of the movie. The purpose may have been to develop the relationship between Mattie and Rooster, the cold, business arrangement that develops into a genuine, heartfelt friendship of sorts. The middle section of this film is basically a road trip, which allows for the introduction of quirky characters that often appear in Coen films like a Grizzly Adams or ZZ Top-looking dentist wearing bear skin.
The purpose of road trip movies is usually to develop or strengthen the friendships of their main characters, and, if that was the purpose of this western to be a road trip or buddy cop film set in the late 1800s, and have it be about the unlikely friendship or partnership of a teenage girl and an old gunslinger, that would have been fine. Unfortunately, the conclusion doesn't resolve or congeal that friendship. We instead get a ridiculous, final action and a rather hollow epilogue.
This stands in contrast to the rich cinematography and the interesting staging and direction of the major shootouts. For two in particular, the Coens, as probably dictated by the book, set the camera in the point-of-view of a sniper tons of yards away from the main gun play. Again, that may have been a dictation of the book, but the Coens mirror this technique of keeping the camera distant from action we want to focus on in other situations, such as a tree climbing or Ned's taking of Mattie.
I haven't seen the 1969 version, but I doubt it had the level of violence here. Some of it is rather gratuitous. Going by this movie, the west was littered with dead bodies, corpses literally hanging around every corner, boom economic times for morticians, and not only human corpses, but horse corpses as well. Where the Coens go too far is in their depiction of the death of one particular horse named Little Blackie. I don't know if it was depicted in 1969, but the horse's death here was just too abusive and cruel.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some intense violence and disturbing images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.