Someone had to save "True Grit" and that the Coen Brothers are in charge of posse is reason to be appreciative. After their rather opaque film A Serious Man tanked seriously at the box-office (I thought it was last year's best movie), they needed a more accessible property to bring in audiences, and the well-known property (whether by book or previous film) is a good match.
Sure, I love the original 1969 version. But, over time legend has overcome its considerable gifts, overshadowing the story, as John Wayne's performance overshadowed the movie. True Grit (1969) is an adventure story, where the book is a post-modern comic drubbing of Old West myths. The first film has a lot of those myths intact, those being the myths from Hollywood's westerns, including such at-the-end-of-an-era things as Strother Martin, Jeff Corey, Hank Worden, the opening song, Elmer Bernstein's Copland-with-brass score, clean streets and available light. The first True Grit is a sun-dappled western romp more pretty than gritty, with Kim Darby (good as she is) having to play young rather than the character, and Glen Campbell (out of his depth) as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. It's just so clean, and the enterprise at its core so self-congratulatory that the point of the book gets a bit swamped in the process.
The Coens take True Grit back to its roots. Keeping in Mattie Ross' arch narration, and casting 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld as the young protagonist is a shift that greatly improves this adaptation. Steinfeld is just severe enough, and, as opposed to the earlier film's Darby, spends her time acting more adult, as opposed to being an older actress acting young. She's a bit arresting, bossing around Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and horse-trader Hollister (Dakin Matthews), not having to sell the "young" aspect, but merely rise above it.
Like Steinfeld, the rest of the casting is superb. Matt Damon's LaBoeuf is still a glory-hound, but of such fool-hardy self-assurance and puffery that you actually feel a bit sorry when it doesn't pan out to his vision. Josh Brolin does a fine job as Tom Chaney, the initial object of the man-hunt, bigger in myth than he is in real life, and something of a whiner. And Barry Pepper is nearly unrecognizable as Lucky Ned Pepper (I'm sure, no relation), who reveals a gift for rolling around the stilted dialogue he's been saddled with, and who (bless him) acknowledges in his performance the work of the fine actor who preceded him in the role.*
And everyone will be watching Jeff Bridges, because he has small boots to fill—Wayne had little feet—His "Rooster" Cogburn has his eye-patch on the other side (Wayne kept his left eye covered, Bridges his right—that a political statement?), and his deputy Marshall is more dissolute, less jolly, growlier and more willing to admit his infirmities. His drunk is a bit more dangerous and cantankerous (the Coens keep the corn-dodger shooting match between Cogburn and LaBoeuf), although Bridges always tries to invest some dignity in the stumbling, playing it less for laughs than for character. The role has little of Wayne's "star" presence, but a nice sunken lived-in quality. His "Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch" is not said as a challenge, but in genuine anger, without Hollywood quotation marks. He's superb, and by the time he confronts a Choctaw body-snatcher on the hunt, Wayne's version is cheerfully merely remembered.
But, it goes beyond that for the Coens' version. Their True Grit is steeped in atmosphere, acknowledging racial differences and feeling less like a scout outing on a beautiful spring day. Confrontations are held in pitch-black night, during snow-flurries, and inclement weather. Nature in its beauty played a big part in the appeal of the 60's Grit, here it is nature in its ambivalence—one gut-wrenching scene taking place in the pitch of night under a dwarfing sky of shining stars. The struggles of the individuals, man and beast, under that canopy are thrown into stark relief with those indifferent points of light. It haunts, and throw one more sharpening aspect of this version that the previous lacked.
For, after the deeds have been done, this Mattie Ross, confidently bossy 14 year old, is given a sight of the carnage her single-minded quest has left in its wake. There are moments, under that clear sky, of regret that the first film didn't dare preach, and of the destruction such obstinance can wreak. A further coda follows the book's conclusion, that such lessons may not keep, under so strict a host.
It's lovely. It's the book, done in a minor key in an overcast light, not dressed-up and gussied-up, but bittersweet, full of sand, and a lot of grit.
True Grit (2010) is a Full-Price Ticket
* Okay, I can't keep it a secret, it is so delicious: Robert Duvall played Pepper in the first film, and in a key-scene (with Pepper in close-up) giving instructions to stay with Mattie Ross, Pepper gives a two-fingered hand-signal that was a running gesture of Duvall's iconic (and beloved) Augustus McRae in the "Lonesome Dove" mini-series. That move calls to mind another gesture echo in classic westerns: John Wayne's grabbing his arm in the last shot of The Searchers in a quiet tribute to the habit of another star of John Ford westerns, Harry Carey. Lovely, and nearly invisible.