I recently watched the remake, or to be more precise the alternate adaptation of the book True Grit is based on directed by The Coen Brothers. I thought the film was well made but at the same time I had my problems with it. Since I’m a longtime fan of the original and also a big fan of The Coens, I thought I’d take an honest, straight forward look at the two films and point out what I did/didn’t like.
U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn
John Wayne’s U.S. Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn was one of his finest roles. The character was a cantankerous ol rebel of the Wild West that was deadly with a pistol, enjoyed playing a post-meal game of cards with his friend, the shopkeeper Chin Lee and drinking his whiskey. He also owned an orange tabby cat he called General Sterling Price. This is a small detail but it showed that Rooster wasn’t just about bounty hunting and boozing. Wayne had been in so many Westerns from the 1930s on and True Grit was one of his last and best performances. He had developed his western persona so much by this time he didn’t even have to act. He was basically playing himself which just made the film easier to get into and enjoy. One of the most important parts of the film was his special relationship with young Mattie who he affectionately called “baby sister” and how it progresses.
Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn is interesting simply because he’s always a master craftsman that brings alot of charisma and ideas to whatever role he’s in. I can’t not mention his now legendary character “The Dude” in The Coens’ cult classic The Big Lebowski. He’s perfect in it. The main problem I had with his characterization in True Grit was his speech. Rooster is such a complete marble mouth his dialogue becomes really tough to understand. This may have been a deliberate choice on his part or one The Coens made to give him that eccentric touch they like to have in their movies but it actually doesn’t help it. Another negative detail is Rooster and Mattie never really connect like they do in the 1969 film. There is no familial bond that we see form between them.
The main character Mattie Ross is a vengeful, serious, stubborn young girl who is out to get a criminal on the run named Tom Chaney the killer of her father and numerous other men. Hailee Steinfeld shines in her role as the snappy, no nonsense Mattie. Her take on the character is relatively close to that of Kim Darby who was excellent in the 1969 film. Throughout the film Steinfeld proves to be a formidable actress who can hold her own against all the male actors. It’s a standout performance.
Texas Ranger LeBeouf
Glenn Campbell a popular country singer (you might know his song “Rhinestone Cowboy”) was cast in the role of Texas Ranger LeBeouf in the earlier film and he does a good job although it’s nothing special. Matt Damon’s LeBeouf has a bit more character depth, better dialogue and is one of the most interesting people in the film.
Jeff Corey’s Tom Chaney was much more of a deranged scoundrel whereas Josh Brolin who had previously appeared in The Coens’ modern western/crime film No Country For Old Men is really not quite as convincing. His dialogue readings also came off very dull and one note which I didn’t like. Brolin is a good actor but his cameo as Chaney wasn’t a very memorable performance.
Lucky Ned Pepper
These dual performances are the closest for me between both films mainly because Barry Pepper has alot of the same dialogue as Robert Duvall did. One thing I liked alot was Pepper’s look. At first I wasnt even sure if it was him, then I recognized his face. They did a great job turning him into a dirty outlaw with crooked teeth and a weathered face. Like Duvall, his Ned Pepper doesn’t come across as a total villain but someone who lives by his own code and he’s actually one of the more likeable people in the story. Pepper is always a solid actor who makes a project better. From his work in Saving Private Ryan to The 25th Hour to this film.
DIRECTION & SOUND
One thing that is a main difference between the two films is the stylistic visual approaches and how their respective moods and overall technical aspects come across to viewers.
Henry Hathaway who was one of the legendary old school directors in Hollywood went for a more traditional set up with his shots. The earlier film was much brighter and more naturalistic and didn’t rely on alot of tricks or flourishes (which is often used with today’s easy access to technology). This made it easy to understand and had a broad appeal to audiences.
The Coen Brothers are known for their inventive, offbeat direction and cinematography and in True Grit they don’t dissapoint by using a variety of photographic effects and interesting color schemes giving the film a washed out, gothic look. Their aesthetic in this film really has more in common with something like a Tim Burton movie than a classic Hollywood western. It was interesting to look at and I appreciate their darker spin on the tale but at the same time it didn’t fill in any meaningful spaces in the story for me.
The music between both films is another big difference. In 1969, the score by Elmer Bernstein reflected the times and was more upbeat. It featured the main song by Glenn Campbell which was a pop folksy ballad. The Coens’ film score by their collaborator Carter Burwell is of course more somber in tone. It’s actually closer to a thriller than a Western.
THE ENDING (Spoilers)
The original films finale is certainly happier and just more enjoyable to me. The Coens version is downbeat, cold and unsentimental. As opposed to the 1969 film which ends on a positive note, in The Coens’ film Mattie Ross never sees Rooster again after their adventure and years later when she returns to visit him at a Wild West Show she finds he has died. We also learn that Mattie is a frigid old maid who seems to look down on everyone and for me this change actually ruined the entire film because of who I had hoped she would be in the end.
Overall, I found the Coens’ adaptation of True Grit to be close to the original film in story but the various changes that were made to be more in line with the story the films are based on didn’t improve on it much at all. While the first film reminds me of a coming of age adventure, bonding and happiness, the remake is very unemotional and negative and I wasn’t touched by the characters in any way.
My personal choice between the two still is the first, lighter version of True Grit. I grew up with it and I’ve really come to enjoy it more and more over the years. There’s a saying that goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and in this case that definitely applies.
What did you think? Let us know in the comment section below!
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