I first read the novel True Grit when I was about 11 years old. I first saw the original movie version at about the same time, and I’ve been a fan of both ever since. Charles Portis’s novel is an under-appreciated American classic, overwhelmed perhaps by John Wayne’s iconic portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film. Whenever I’ve been asked, “What’s your favorite movie?” my answer has always been True Grit. I heard a few months ago that the Coen brothers were re-making True Grit, and I shuddered. Finding out that Rooster would be played by Jeff Bridges made me feel a little better but still wary.
As it turns out, the new version of True Grit is actually good, very good. But how does it stack up to the original? Here’s my take on that question, arrived at by comparing aspects of the two films.
Rooster Cogburn: Jeff Bridges is terrific in this role, but John Wayne blows him away. Before True Grit, John Wayne played pretty much the same role in every movie: John Wayne. With Rooster Cogburn, however, he had to accommodate the lines crafted in the novel by Charles Portis. Those lines could not be changed without changing the essence of Rooster. John Wayne actually created a new role rather than just another version of his John Wayne stock character. He put on the eye patch, said those Portis lines, and he became a character we’d never seen before.
Jeff Bridges mumbles his way through the same Portis lines, and he shuffles across the screen in a seemingly self-conscious attempt to avoid evoking any aspect of John Wayne’s Rooster. That is an understandable approach for an actor, but Bridges does not re-define the role. Jeff Bridges presents a believable, interesting version of Rooster Cogburn, but he’s no John Wayne.
Mattie Ross: Hallie Steinfeld creates a new version of Mattie Ross, tough as nails, the embodiment of True Grit. But in those moments when Steinfeld’s Mattie shows vulnerability, she seems terrified. Kim Darby’s 1969 portrayal is more nuanced. Her Mattie is tough and vulnerable at the same time. When she negotiates with Colonel Stonehill, we see both her strength and her fear. Hallie Steinfeld is either hot or cold, either fearful or fearless. Kim Darby’s Mattie is more complex and interesting.
LaBoeuf: Glen Campbell was in way over his head with this role. What were they thinking? Although he was an enormously popular country-pop singer at the time, he overacts in every scene and is incapable of creating an empathic connection with the audience. Charles Portis created LaBoeuf as a subtly foppish character in the book, but Glen Campbell’s foppery boils over. He seems ready to grab a guitar and bust into “Rhinestone Cowboy” at any moment. In fairness to Campbell, he seems much more at home in his next movie, Norwood, also based on a Charles Portis novel and also starring Kim Darby.
Matt Damon allows us to see LaBoeuf the way Mattie and Rooster see him, as an egotistical Texan with just enough rugged credibility to maybe bring in Tom Chaney on his own.
Tom Chaney: Josh Brolin or Jeff Corey? Neither one is particularly compelling as the bad guy. Brolin is more sinister; Corey is more interesting to watch on screen.
Supporting Cast: Robert Duvall. Dennis Hopper. Strother Martin. ‘Nuff said.
Direction: The Coen brothers seem heavy-handedly intent on making this into some kind of morality play. The story does that just fine without all of their melodramatic flourishes. Sure, the Coens are good at making memorable images on screen—for example, the silhouettes of Rooster firing his pistols with his duster whirling around him. This, however, does nothing to advance the story or deepen our understanding of Rooster. It reminds us that the Coen brothers are trying to convey Rooster as some kind of archetypal justice-bringer, but we pretty much already had that idea. Henry Hathaway’s direction of the 1969 movie doesn’t do anything fancy. His steady direction unobtrusively follows the actors and action, and occasionally shows us a bit of scenery that establishes place and makes a vivid visual impression. Less is more.
Soundtrack: Glen Campbell sings the theme song in the 1969 version. It’s fine. That was a convention at the time the movie was made. Elmer Bernstein’s haunting score is beautifully integrated into the development of the plot. “Papa’s Things,” for example, is a piece underlying the scene when Mattie first sees her father’s belongings at the funeral parlor. Bernstein’s music strikes all the right emotional chords.
The Coen brothers resort to renditions of vengeance-themed hymns dropped in at various moments. These songs seem more like obtrusive symbols than musical enhancements that serve the story. The exception here is Iris DeMent’s delivery of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” over the closing credits. That works perfectly, although I was actually hoping to hear someone sing the Glen Campbell song at some point.
The Ending: The 2010 version delivers an ending that is in some ways more satisfying. It definitely ties up more loose ends. I’m avoiding spoilers here, but the final silhouette of Mattie awkwardly walking into the horizon helps viewers arrive at a fuller understanding of Mattie and the lifelong impact of her time pursuing Tom Chaney. The 1969 version ends with one last look at Rooster Cogburn full of amiable bluster segueing into a freeze frame showing Rooster full of life and on to his next adventure. Each ending seems right in the context of its respective movie. I like the 1969 ending better on an emotional level, but I respect the craft involved in the more sophisticated ending of the 2010 version.
If you’ve never seen the original 1969 movie, you owe it to yourself. It’s an excellent piece of entertainment. The 2010 version is a well-made movie, but the original movie is better. And I hope the new True Grit movie will draw new readers to the Charles Portis novel that begat them both.