Directed by the Coen Brothers
The 1969 film was a celebration of all things John Wayne while the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the same source material is much more broadly comedic, at least to a point. The Rooster Cogburn character here is played by a legendary actor in his own right, Jeff Bridges. He’s somewhere between The Dude and Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, an aged drunk of a U.S. Marshall who is often used for comedy but can still kick some ass when the moment calls for it.
There are two things I noticed upon rewatching this film so soon after seeing the 1969 version. First, the Coen Brothers go out of their way to point out the obvious racism that would have dominated the old west and similarly plagued old Hollywood westerns. In those films, whether by John Ford (minus The Searchers) or otherwise, the natives were often the villains, solely by virtue of their ‘otherness.’ They looked different and thus they were antagonists. Most of those films turned them into easy villains and in the process reduced them to cartoonish caricatures.
An early scene here shows the hanging of three men, two of whom are white while the third is Native American. The first two get a chance to address the crowd before them while the third’s final words are snuffed out as the hood is yanked over his head.
In another moment, Cogburn coldly (and somewhat humorously) shoves a couple of Native American children off a porch. It seems to come out of the blue, and it’s sort of hilarious (I think) because of how surprising and yet obvious it seems. Of course Rooster Cogburn is a racist, why wouldn’t he be?
So the Coen Brothers point something out about the genre that many movies gloss over. They also turn Mattie Ross’ (Hailee Steinfeld) story into a rivalry between Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). In the original, LaBoeuf remains with Cogburn and Mattie throughout the story, dying in the climax as part of his redemption arc.
In this version, LaBoeuf abandons them twice over, each time following a childish spat with Ross and Cogburn. His initial departure allows for a creative rewrite to the original film in which Ross and Cogburn stake out a cabin while they await the arrival of the infamous Ned Pepper gang.
LaBoeuf shows up at the worst possible time, and we get one of the most exciting and amusing scenes in the film. Cogburn saves his life but it may have been his bullet that wounded LaBoeuf’s shoulder. Despite surviving, LaBoeuf will bring this up repeatedly to Cogburn until they have a shootout to see how good of a shot each is.
This is Mattie Ross’ story, and yet she takes a silent backseat for a long stretch of the second half of the movie.
The plot concerns Ross seeking revenge for her father’s murder, at the hands of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She hires Cogburn who teams up with LaBoeuf when he realizes both are looking for the same man and that there is quite the reward available. They ditch Ross, but she is so single-minded in her goal to deliver justice that she catches up with them. Over the course of the film the three of them bond, and by the end there is a heroic climax that involves LaBoeuf saving Cogburn, Ross killing Chaney after he blindsides LaBoeuf and Cogburn saving Ross following a poisonous snake bite.
While the film is pretty funny, it still sentimentalizes the story, treating the western as honorably as most westerns treat their stories. The music is nostalgic and sincere, almost so much so that you think the Coen Brothers might just be mocking some part of the genre in a manner I can’t quite see.
It’s because they are such smart, subversive filmmakers that I have to imagine there is more going on here. Regardless, the film is entertaining, hilarious and full of wonderful performances, pulling the best from a variety of actors.
It’s in the Coen Brothers’ films that many day players seem to show up and bring side characters to life. The briefest of lines, combined with a particular mannerism and wardrobe, tell you so much about characters who might be little more than a cameo.
Up Next: The Lookout (2007), Gerry (2002), Winter Light (1963)