The Coen Brothers’ True Grit is less a remake of the 1969 Henry Hathaway film with John Wayne than it is a completely new film based on Charles Portis’ novel, more a literary adaptation than a cinematic remonkeying. The stories are more or less the same, but everything about the Coen film feels fresh, new and, yes, unmistakably a Coen Brothers picture. It’s also one of the best films of the year, and almost certainly the best-looking one. And it just may surprise some folks, because while it’s clearly the Coens’ work, it is in no way revisionist—except perhaps as concerns revising the material back to the source. In most respects, what they’ve made here is something startlingly like a traditional Western. For the Coens, that may be viewed as radical.
It’s impossible, of course, not to compare this True Grit to the Hathaway film, since it’s so well known. First of all, the casting here couldn’t be more different. Hathaway gave us (or was saddled with) a hammy John Wayne, a wooden Glen Campbell and an inept Kim Darby. The Coens give us a shrewdly underplaying Jeff Bridges, a deceptively simple Matt Damon and a pitch-perfect newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld, who, unlike Darby, is the right age for the character of Mattie Ross. Stylistically, Hathaway gave us what amounted to an old-fashioned Hollywoodized movie, broadly played and energetic, but lacking in any real depth. The Coens give us a more subtle, dryly humorous film with an undercurrent of darkness.
The story, as noted, is largely the same. Fourteen-year-old Mattie sets out to avenge the murder of her father by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has run away into Indian Territory. Apprised of the fact that she needs a U.S. Marshal to pursue him there, she hires—mostly against his will—the surly, drink-sodden, one-eyed and downright mean Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) for the job. Alarming the family lawyer (bonus points for viewers who recognize the unbilled actor providing the voice-over for the lawyer) and out-maneuvering the adults, Mattie is single-minded in her quest. This much is the same, but the tone is different (Rooster is introduced to us as a gravelly, ill-tempered voice from inside an outhouse). There’s a real menace here and more than a little gothic ghoulishness to it all.
Where lesser filmmakers would have traded on Mattie’s pluck and cute-factor, the Coens keep her a grimly determined, unrelentingly dour presence—a kind of pint-sized force of Protestant righteousness. (A great deal of Carter Burwell’s score is grounded in old hymns, reinforcing Mattie’s mind-set, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arm,” which film fans will recognize from Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), which was certainly what the Coens had in mind.) Mattie is played straight with Cogburn, and the movie-cowboy Texas Ranger who forces himself on the party, LaBoeuf (Damon), fills the position of an endlessly bickering comedy team. And amazingly, it all works, coming together into a wholly satisfying film experience.
While the Coens—and their usual (since Barton Fink in 1991) cinematographer Roger Deakins—can be relied on for stunning visuals, True Grit may well be the most beautiful of all their films. Yet at the same time, there are fewer of the elaborate camera flourishes here than are found in many of their films. This is more a film grounded in composition than camera movement—and it fits the tone and the genre in which they’re working. The results are a film I find hard to fault on any level. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence, including disturbing images.