America, having lost its way in the 21st Century, is in desperate need of the Western, which it cast aside too heedlessly and too cynically in the 60s. The Western keeps coming back, successfully when it celebrates the old values Americans are hungry for — the traditional, unifying national myth — disastrously when it tries to peddle the old 60s cynicism one more time.
The Coen brothers understand this if any filmmakers working in Hollywood today understand it, which gives me hope that their remake of True Grit, coming this Christmas, will offer a way back into the Western for modern audiences.
They've chosen the perfect vehicle. When the Western was buried prematurely it was just starting to expand its horizons, just embarking on the next logical phase of its development, which was to incorporate a female perspective into the myth. Charles Portis's novel, the story of an alliance between an aging lawman and a 14 year-old girl, may not offer a mature female perspective, but it's on the right track — it suggests a future. 14 year-old girl heroes grow up eventually into women heroes.
Portis's novel also deals with a social phenomenon that has only grown more pronounced since the book was published in 1968 — fatherlessness. In the tale, Mattie Ross's father has been murdered, and she hires a broken down gunman to help her get revenge. The gunman, Rooster Cogburn, must reconnect with his heroic youth in order to fulfill his mission — an image of manhood in need of redemption, of a kind of surrogate father given a second chance to do his duty.
The Coens are also among the few filmmakers working in Hollywood who understand how to use cinematic space for emotional effects — an understanding which is crucial to the success of any Western, which depends so profoundly on the truths about themselves people reveal in the ways they move through space, through iconic American landscapes, on foot or on horseback.
If the Coens pull this one off, it will be a grand Christmas present to cinema, and to the nation.