True Grit: The Coens Do It Lean and Mean


When it was announced that the Coen Brothers were doing a retake on True Grit, this reviewer was intrigued, since he held the earlier version in very high esteem-and still does. That being said, The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic western novel turns out to be a beautifully photographed (by Roger Deakins) if slow-moving tale of a determined girl named Mattie Ross who hires the resolutely drunk yet fearless U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn to bring her father’s killer to swift-and deadly justice. They are joined in this quest through a wintry landscape by Texas ranger LaBoeuf, and the three quarrel and spar, all the while developing some mutual respect enroute to their date with destiny.  There are few surprises in this tale-and the biggest one is that the Coens don’t reinvent the wheel here–in fact, they stick pretty close to it. The stilted, distinctive speech patterns and almost all the memorable lines are lifted straight from the novel. In addition. the movie follows the book’s structure fairly closely in that it unfolds like an extended elegy of an Old West (augmented by the haunting strains of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms) filtered through the prism of a proud woman’s memory of a defining moment in her youth. This is a West of hardbitten men with codes all their own–including some of the bad men. The movie also echoes other Coen works in that it keeps the viewer at an emotional distance. One can admire Mattie’s steely resolve in Hailee Steinfeld’s performance but feel detached, as with Jeff Bridges’ somewhat overly debauched Rooster. Bridges does a decent job, but one can see the wheels turning: pour on the drunken rambling here, almost to the point of being inaudible, bring out the rueful regret there. The whole is a little less than the sum of its parts. Matt Damon makes a fine LaBoeuf, determined in his own way, proud, flawed, and doing all he can to protect Mattie-especially from some of her foolish whims. Damon more than holds his own-in many ways, his is the best performance in the film. Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin also contribute good work as the outlaw leader Lucky Ned Pepper and the bemused killer Tom Chaney (Why do these things happen to me!). In the end, there is a lot in True Grit to respect–your choice if you want to make the journey.

Seeing the remake of True Grit might give you a hankering to do one if not two things: read the excellent source novel by Charles Portis, now back in print in a lovely edition and well worth reading for the lovingly crafted dialogue and Mattie’s musings on all kinds of matters. It might also make you want to see the original movie and that’s not a bad thing. Certain reviewers have been patronizing to the original while highlighting the Coens’ fidelity to the novel. Well, the 1969 Henry Hathaway-directed classic starring an Oscar-winning John Wayne is also quite faithful. If it changes a few things, especially toward the end, it makes for a more emotionally involving and moving experience. Kim Darby does a lovely job as the determined Mattie, making her even likable; Glen Campbell is an OK LaBoeuf, while Wayne positively inhabits Rooster, balancing the character’s many flaws with his inherent heroism. If there’s a big difference between the two movies, it’s in the tone: the remake comes across as solemn and mournful, and a little distant; the original is a vibrant, rousing adventure-and a meditation on honor and mortality. There’s room enough for those two interpretations-and probably more in times to come. Check it–or them out. You won’t be sorry.