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 True Grit (2010) 

Theme: Death

The Coen brothers remake of the 1969 film True Grit is much closer to the Charles Portis novel than the original film starring John Wayne. The differences between the two films are not minor for they change the entire "theme" of each movie, and they make a powerful statement about the times in which the films were produced.

Insights:

The movie starts and ends with death and there is only death in between. The season is winter, the setting is bleak and barren, the colors are drab brown, dull gray, and pitch black.

The opening scene is of Mattie Ross' father, Frank, lying dead in the street. An elderly Mattie narrates the tale of how her father died and her pursuit of the man who shot him. The first picture of 14 year old Mattie is of her in the funeral parlor standing over her father's coffin.

The pursuit of the murderer, Tom Chaney, takes Mattie along with the Deputy Marshall "Rooster" Cogburn into Indian Territory. At times they are joined by the Texas Ranger, La Boeuf, who also is in pursuit of Chaney. Visually the adventure is one encounter with death after another:

3 men hanging when she hires Cogburn

1 man hanging from a tree

1 dead body when they encounter the man with bear skin

4 dead men in the shoot out at the Dugout

4 dead men in the final shoot out

The climax of the film is Mattie's fatal shooting of Tom Chaney and her fall into the pit. She encounters death in all of its ugly reality as a nest of rattlesnakes come slithering out of the skeleton next to her. It couldn't be a more fitting personification of "death".

Rooster and La Boeuf pull the snake bitten Mattie out of the pit and Cogburn takes her on a brutal ride to save her life (La Boeuf is never heard from again). In the dark night death rears its ugly head as her horse, "Blackie", collapses and is shot by the Marshall.

The movie ends 25 years later with Mattie, now a one armed old maid, hearing the news of Rooster Cogburn's death. She has his body moved to her family plot in Yell County and the closing scene is of a solitary black figure walking away from his grave.

As the movie began with Mattie standing over a dead father so it ends.

 True Grit (1969) 

Theme: Life and Restoration

Insights:

The 1969 film opens in Yell County with the Ross family ranch in a picturesque valley. Shown in a loving relationship, Mattie and her father are conversing about his upcoming trip.  The film begins with beauty and life.

Even though the film quickly descends into death and affliction, there are striking differences with the new version. Mattie and Rooster's pursuit of Chaney does not take place in a bleak and barren landscape. Beautiful scenery shot in Colorado is the background for "Indian Territory". This may seem like a minor contrast or a major faux pas because the novel is set in Arkansas and Oklahoma not the majestic Rockies. However, what this does to the "tone" of the film is significant. It keeps the "feel" of death minimized by contrasting it to the creation that reflects its glorious Creator. Descent into affliction is softened by beauty, color and life.

Relationally there are also significant differences in the two films. In the new version both Cogburn and La Boeuf show a weakness in their character by giving up the pursuit of Chaney. Mattie does not. She is the one with "true grit" and this is her story. In the 1969 version Rooster is the heart of the film and he along with Mattie demonstrates "true grit". La Boeuf, who dies helping to save Mattie, takes on sacrificial nobility.

The final scene changes the entire tone of the film for in it there is life and restoration. With her arm in a sling, 14 year old Mattie is standing in her family burial plot showing Rooster where her family members will be buried. She asks him to be buried next to her. There is no doubt because of the placement that he has become her new father. For his part, Rooster who has lost a child accepts her offer and is thereby restored to a family. "Now Sis," he affectionately tells her "You will have a husband and kids." forecasting a rich full life for Mattie. Death has been defeated by La Boeuf's sacrifice and Rooster's love. The last picture is of Rooster fully alive jumping on his new horse as he waves to Mattie.

Beauty, affliction and restoration through sacrifice and love, the 1969 film follows the Biblical pattern of Creation, Fall and Redemption. The 2010 movie begins with the Fall and ends with the Fall. There is no restoration, no reconciliation, no happily ever after - only the sting of death.

The 41 intervening years have seen a tremendous shift in the mindset of the popular culture. The 1969 film seems predictable, sentimental and almost archaic to the post modern viewer. They would much prefer the "realism" of the 2010 version. A commentary not so much on filmmaking styles as it is on the culture itself.

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