It’s remarkable how different Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” is from the 1969 version starring John Wayne even though the two have all the same characters, nearly identical narratives, a lot of the same dialogue from Charles Portis’ original novel. The biggest difference is the Coens themselves and the attitude they bring to the material. The original “True Grit” is a sentimental story about the Old West and a girl who has lost her father and who, in her quest to avenge his death, finds a new one. It has dark moments and themes, but overall it’s a light-hearted film; at times it plays more like boozy frontier comedy than a Western revenge thriller. In contrast, the 2010 “True Grit” is a far bleaker and more severe portrait of life in the West, a place the Coens portray as sad and scary even as it is exciting and beautiful. Their version has comedy as well, but it’s much a much darker kind. To call it gallows humor would be entirely accurate, particularly since in an early scene the Coens turn a public hanging into a enormous punchline.
Though the commercials make it appear like Jeff Bridges is the film’s hero, that title actually belongs to a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who hires Bridges’ cantankerous U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to help her find her father’s killer. Later they’re joined by a egotistical Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, who is hunting the same man on a different charge. Cogburn and La Boeuf are reluctant to deal with the headstrong Mattie, and then even more reluctant to take her along into “dangerous Indian territory” when she demands to accompany them. But the charmingly bull-headed Mattie will not be swayed. By focusing on this unstoppable, empowered young woman and showing her to be the equal of her more seasoned gunfighter partners rather than a damsel in distress, “True Grit” plays sort of as a chick flick/Western hybrid, and a highly satisfying one at that.
One key element of that satisfaction — and another key difference between the “Grit”s — is casting. Kim Darby played Mattie in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 production, and though she had a charmingly warm relationship with Wayne, she was 22 when she played the part and looked it. Steinfeld, on the other hand, was 13 when she shot “True Grit,” and the tininess of her pre-teen frame enhances every scene; accentuating the humor when she bullies around businessmen who underestimate her intelligence and the danger when she’s held at gunpoint by outlaws. Damon, hilariously impressed with his own abilities as a Texas Ranger, is also a major upgrade over the original cast (sorry, Glen Campbell).
The highest compliment you can pay Bridges is that he draws no comparisons to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, a performance that earned the actor his only Academy Award. Bridges’ Cogburn is a totally different guy, more ornery, more surly, more in touch with his film’s dryer sense of humor. It’s also interesting to note how different Cogburn is from The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” the last character Bridges created with the Coens. Other than the fact that both men are introduced on or around the toilet, they have almost nothing in common. The fact that one man could so convincingly play two disparate men is yet another impressive feat by Bridges, one of our best actors.
The Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” may not be a better movie than the original but it’s certainly a better production. The cinematography by Roger Deakins, who shot the Coens’ “No Country For Old Men,” stunningly recreates the sepia-toned texture of old photographs and the production design by Jess Gonchor immerses us in one of the most believable Western settings I’ve ever seen onscreen. I liked the John Wayne “True Grit,” and I liked the Coens’ “True Grit” too. They’re similar in some ways, different in others, but both work on their own terms.