I went to see the Coen Brother’s adaptation of True Grit yesterday. My good friends Dana and Richard were there as well. We saw it at the first showing at 11:30 am on Wednesday so the theater was less than packed. There were a number of adolescents in the audience and I really wondered what they thought of the film because this was not a slam-bang action flick. Instead it was a mature western with a good story and great characters and acting. I’d say it is the best western I’ve seen since Unforgiven and maybe the best film I’ve seen this year.
First let me say that I am a fan of the 1969 version. John Wayne yelling “Fill your hand you sonuvabitch!” and riding into the climactic gunfight (yes, there is a lot after that with caves and snakes, but seriously – isn’t that the real climax of the film?) is one of the iconic moments of movie westerns. I think Wayne and director Henry Hathaway created a broad and enjoyable caricature of the John Wayne Western Hero that was entertaining in and of itself, but then occasionally rose above it. Add to this an excellent supporting cast (well, except for Glen Campbell, who has criticized his own acting in that film) and wonderful cinematography and you have one of the great westerns of all time. John Wayne dominates this film as he did so many of his pictures.
As a fan of that movie I experienced an interesting mix of familiarity and discovery while watching the Coen Brother’s adaptation. In terms of story, sometimes even in terms of shots, the two movies are very similar. What makes this so different is the deft touches in the direction and acting. Jeff Bridges is excellent in this movie. He makes Rooster Cogburn into a less slapstick sort of character. He is still heroic, but in a rather different way – more brutal and less endearing, but also more real. In a scene almost straight from the 1969 version, a drunken Rooster Cogburn falls from his horse. In the original this was played for comedy, here it comes across as a painful reminder of the flaws and frailty of this man. Still, the heroic sense of the character comes through strongly at the end during the long race to save Mattie’s life. Bridges is able to bring all of these elements – heroism, brutality, and weakness – together in an excellent performance. Comparing Matt Damon’s portrayal of Le Boeuf with Glen Campbell’s seems almost unfair, but the character becomes much less of a seeming afterthought and more a part of the whole story in this film. Barry Pepper turns in an excellent turn in a short amount of screen time as Ned Pepper (as did Robert Duvall in the original). As in so many of his films, the master of making much of small parts is Josh Brolin, here as the villanous Tom Chaney.
The biggest difference is the character of Mattie Ross. Kim Darby gave a memorable turn in that role in 1969 and held her own in scenes with Wayne, which was no mean feat. I though the much younger Hailee Steinfeld actively dominated many of her scenes. True Grit is the story of her adventure, but I think that is lost by the end of the 1969 version simply because of the extent to which Wayne takes over the screen. The new adaptation keeps bringing us back to Mattie as the protagonist and Steinfeld’s performance is strong enough to support that. While Jeff Bridges is identified as the star of this movie, I think this movie really belongs to Hailee Steinfeld. I’m looking forward to what this actress will deliver in the future.
As much as I still love the 1969 version, the new adaptation is a more solid movie. It achieves that rare balance in todays movies of character and action. It also achieves that sense of “authenticity” (or perhaps verisimilitude) that modern westerns frequently seek but without the ponderous seriousness that comes with so many (Deadwood is another example of success in that area, while The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford comes to mind as a failure, although one should have expected a ponderous film given that ponderous title). In this adaptation we see another great piece of work by the Coen Brothers. It plays to their strengths – the visual appeal of the west, the mixture of comedy and drama, somewhat eccentric characters – all things you see done well in their best films.
This movie has Oscar written all over it (Although its excellent score has been eliminated from consideration by the Academy due to the unforgivable crime of including elements from 19th century hymns.) I hope it garners the awards it deserves. It is a film that takes the best elements of the classic western and the human reality of the best drama and uses them together.
Yep, I liked it.