The first film version of True Grit, directed by Henry Hathaway in 1969, is one of those movies beloved of squares & hipsters alike. Even more than Stagecoach or The Searchers or The Quiet Man or Rio Bravo, it’s probably the movie with which John Wayne is most associated—if somebody tells you to picture John Wayne, there’s a good chance you’ll conjure him up in middle age, wearing the eye-patch of “Rooster” Cogburn, perhaps riding with the reins in his mouth & guns blazing in both hands.
Thus the decision by the Coen Brothers to make a new version of True Grit, one closer in plot, language & tone to the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, ran the risk of comparison to a film toward which many people feel protective. But while their version need not (& likely won’t) replace the Wayne version in anyone’s affections, it’s still a fascinating & grimly funny picture.
The story is roughly the same, though harsher. In Arkansas in the late 19th-Century, a precociously strong-willed & articulate 14-year-old named Mattie Ross engages Cogburn, a drunken, shoot-first Federal Marshal, to hunt down the man who killed her father. The two of them, in company with a Texas Ranger, track the man, now riding with a dangerous gang, into the Oklahoma Territory, where they face various perils, & gradually bond.
But the flavor of the Coen’s film, shot in chilly shades by Roger Deakins, & with a fine score by Carter Burwell (using “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as his main theme), is entirely different. In part, this has to do with their use of the language—that same ornate, curlicued, contraction-free dialogue that makes their contemporary-setting films seem stylized makes their True Grit feel pretty authentic to its period & place.
The film’s originality, however, has even more to do with the performance of Jeff Bridges. Wayne’s great strength as an actor, especially late in his career, was his larger-than-life warmth, & he was at his most ebullient as Cogburn. Bridges makes the Marshal a crusty, muttering old ruin, not without laconic wit, not even without moments of dignity & sympathy, but still a killer, & not lovable in the usual sense.
It’s a fine performance, but it’s not the only fine performance. The Coens keep their directorial touch more austere & restrained than usual here. Not everything in the movie works; the midsection sort of sags, & a shooting contest between Cogburn & the Texas Ranger isn’t as amusing as it’s meant to be. But the Coens focus on the performances, & the movie offers, pound for pound, maybe the highest concentration of enjoyable acting I’ve seen all year—by Matt Damon as the uppity Texas Ranger, who speaks in the same lofty manner as Mattie, by Josh Brolin as the whiny, self-pitying killer, by Dakin Matthews as the waspish, aggrieved horse merchant, & especially by Barry Pepper, who, as the gang leader, looks like he stepped out of an old photograph.
Still, the real story, perhaps, is Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an almost unearthly poise to the role of Mattie. As with Bridges, she brings a subtly different tone to the role than Kim Darby, who was quite wonderful in the Wayne version. Steinfeld’s line readings carry a touch of avidity, a sense that even though her anger about her father’s murder is very real, there’s also a bit of adventuresome enthusiasm in her attitude toward the project, a sense of chivalric play.
This makes the Coen’s True Grit, for all its jocularity & macabre comedy, tragic in a way that Hathaway’s version was not (& didn’t want to be), & more truly a coming of age story—Mattie learns that, however righteous her cause, what she’s doing is no game. Unrelated parties suffer & die so she can have her revenge.