True Grit (2010) dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
By Alan Bacchus
Just last week I watched the original True Grit for the first time on Blu-Ray. Knowing I would see the Coen’s version a week later it was cause for pause. After all, which ever film I saw first would likely colour my opinion of the other one. I was pleasantly surprised at the original True Grit, it’s a fine film and perfectly suited to an update because of its strong foundation of the genre, its progressive themes and a modern style that it looks terrific with today’s eyes.
And so now we have the Coen Bros version which is surprisingly reverent to the original film and likely the original novel (which I haven’t read). Like the Hathaway/Wayne version, the core story of a sprite young girl seeking revenge against the death of her father and the cross-generational relationship with an aging alcoholic gunslinger is classic stuff. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven there’s pathos in the journey and resonant themes of violence, vengeance and the tropes of the Western genre itself.
Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross, just as Kim Darby played her, is the driving force of the film. The Coen’s open it up with a familiar tone, a melancholy introduction, opening narration complimented by a pitch perfect piano melody by Carter Burwell. We see Mattie Ross’ father lying dead on the ground, as described by Ross, a heinous murdered committed by a criminal named Cheney. We then see Mattie arrive into a small Arkansas town looking to bring his father’s body home, close off his assets and affairs and hire someone to bring his killer to justice. She finds her man in Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed U.S. Marshal described as having ‘grit’ – true grit.
Despite being 14 her confidence and aggressiveness as a businesswoman pushes herself passed everything that stands in her way. Not only does she hire Cogburn, she makes $350 selling off her father’s useless ponies to the coral owner who had no desire to buy them. Mattie also meets up with a smarmy Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who also desires to bring in Cheney, but to Texas to see him hanged for his crimes in his state. Soon the unlikely trio find themselves on a lengthy journey to catch their killer.
Each of the key events and set pieces along the way are almost identical to the John Wayne version. And why not, it was a marvellous original screenplay, and so the Coens are smart not to mess with what’s working. They even quicken up the pace by jumping right into the story of Mattie’s search. Gone is the opening sequence showing her father travelling to town and getting killed.
Stylistically the Coens hold back from their idiosyncratic tendencies from A Serious Man and No Country For Old Men. Their reverence of the genre means everything is played straight, letting the characters, conflict and story lead us. The dynamic trio of Ross, LeBoeuf and Cogburn creates a fine narrative anchor. LeBoeuf in particular is the perfect foil for both Cogburn and Ross. We immediately identify with Ross, the innocent young gal avenging her father. And for Cogburn, we know his character inside and out. He’s the antihero of the Western. He’s those John Wayne heroes, like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, or Alan Ladd’s Shane, aged, but still an anti-establishment loner. LeBoeuf compliments both characters perfectly. His conflict with Ross, who constantly disapproves of her presence in the posse and his fun repartee with Cogburn over the merits of the US Marshal service vs. Texas Rangers service is a fun humourous throughline.
Where this new version fails to supersede the 1969 version is the performance of Steinfeld. Her version is good and she sells the mature confidence of Ross, but there was some kind of spark in Kim Darby that is absent in Steinfeld. Perhaps it was the feminist bent to Darby’s performance, reflective of the year in which that film was made – the liberal 60’s.
But where the Coens’ version is elevated above the original is the fantastic third act wherein that magical touch of dreamy melancholy takes the film to another level. The courage and heroism of all three characters to support each other as a team wonderfully completes their combined arc of unity. By the end Cogburn, Leboeuf and Ross form their own little family, and the Coen Bros' tender treatment of this is emotionally satisfying in a way the original never achieved.