In 2010, the Coen brothers did a new adaptation of the novel True Grit, which had previously been adapted in 1969 with John Wayne starring as Rooster Cogburn (which resulted in the Duke’s only Academy Award). The Coens cast Jeff Bridges as Cogburn. On 3 February 2011, I talked about both films, having seen the ’69 film on video before seeing the ’10 film in the theatre. (There’s also a link to another post where I talked more about the ’69 film.)
So Wrenn and I went to see the Coen Brothers’ new adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit, having recently seen the version starring John Wayne released the year after the novel came out. I was already predisposed to like the film for three reasons: 1) It’s the Coen Brothers, and even their flawed films are worth watching. 2) It’s Jeff Bridges, and he’s always great. 3) It’s the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges, which is a combo that has already resulted in one of my favorite movies (The Big Lebowski).
And I loved it even not considering that. Hailee Stanfield is magnificent as the main character, Mattie Ross (why the hell her Academy Award nomination is for Best Supporting Actress is a textbook example of why the defining characteristics for supporting roles makes absolutely no sense, since Stanfield is “supporting” in the same way that Bruce Willis is “supporting” in the Die Hard films). Kim Darby was, IMO, the best part of the 1969 film, and Stanfield lives up to Darby’s example.
The original novel was narrated by Mattie, and the Coen Brothers use that as their guide, as the entire movie is filtered through Mattie’s POV. This means that Mattie’s in every scene, making the whole “supporting actress” thing even more absurd.
The new version is superior to the 41-year-old version is virtually every respect. For starters, Jeff Bridges is greatly superior to John Wayne. Though many would consider it sacreligious to say so, a potted plant would’ve been greatly superior to John Wayne. It boggles my mind that he won an Academy Award for his performance, which was stronger than his usual, but that’s damning with faint praise.
And Bridges actually inhabits the role of Rooster Cogburn, making him into a much more complex and fascinating character than the Duke was able to manage. Meanwhile, Matt Damon out-acts Glenn Campbell — another easy one to accomplish — and the rivalry between Damon’s LeBoeuf and Bridges’s Rooster is far more effective (and funny) than the one between Campbell and Wayne.
The Coens’ focus on Mattie also puts the superior actor in the role of Tom Chaney, Mattie’s father’s murderer. Played by minor character actor Jeff Corey in the 1969 version, they gave the bigger villain role to Ned Pepper, played by Robert Duvall. But the Coens had Josh Brolin as Chaney and minor character actor Barry Pepper playing Ned. The Coens rightly identified Chaney as the true villain, and Brolin plays him brilliantly, perfectly modulating from seemingly ineffectual and lamebrained to vicious and nasty. (But then, this is the same man who played George W. Bush, so we know he can do that…..)
I also infinitely prefer the bittersweet ending in the Coens’ film, which is closer to that of the original book, as opposed to the semi-happy ending of the earlier film (though oddly, the older adaptation kills off LeBoeuf, who survives in the novel and the newer version).
The one way that the 1969 film is superior is that it does a better job of establishing Mattie’s character early on. Where the Coens start with Mattie arriving to claim her father’s body, the earlier adaptation started sooner, showing Mattie working on her family’s farm, and impressing us with her efficiency and acumen, and also showing her relationship with her father.
In any event, where the first adaptation of Portis’s novel was good, the more recent one is excellent, and I strongly recommend it.