The true “True Grit”

I am not a die-hard John Wayne fan.  That being said, I don’t dislike him either.  I just don’t hold his films in the same esteem as many of his loyal followers do.  However, I do appreciate the legacy that he has left behind, which is undisputable.  He entertained a lot of people and continues to do so, which is a noble achievement. 

To me, John Wayne is the original Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold was bigger than life in his films, but he was always some semblance of the same character. And that’s what audiences wanted. They didn’t want an original performance so much as they wanted Arnold doing what Arnold does. The same applies to Mr. Wayne. He was damn good at being John Wayne, not so much at playing diverse roles.

Naturally, the rabid fan base of John Wayne rallied against the concept of a remake of True Grit. And, I get it. Some films are held in a sacred status, a classic to never be touched upon again. For me, however, there is nothing to lose. With the dynamite filmmaking duo of the Coen Brothers and the enlistment of Jeff Bridges (who worked with the Coen’s on The Big Lebowski) in the lead role, I had everything to gain.

When I originally started writing this review I had not seen the original John Wayne film. However, after some heated debate with friends and co-workers about the superiority of the original, I decided to take the Pepsi challenge and get informed. It just so happened that AMC was airing the original in HD and I set my DVR to record.

I watched the original from start to finish and was extremely cautious to ensure I was taking everything into consideration as I did: Time period (that the film was made, not the time period OF the film), technology, and culture. John Wayne’s hay day saw a lot of heroic swagger and monologue-laden dialogue, as well as a hefty layer of macho cheese with extra jalapenos. Same as Schwarzenegger in his hay day.

Cover to the 1st edition of the novel by Charles Portis

The original True Grit is based on the novel by Charles Portis, which follows the story of Mattie Ross, a tenacious teenage girl who seeks to bring her father’s killer to justice. In doing so she hires Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshall who lives up to what Mattie refers to as “true grit,” meaning a tough son of a bitch who’ll get the job done. Mattie and Rooster head out into Indian Territory to find her father’s killer, accompanied by another man named Leboeuf, an arrogant, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks Texas Marshall.

The new version follows the same template and deviates very little from the source material (although one could argue which source they’re using, as it seems they took pieces from both the original film and the novel on which it’s based). The differences, however, are vast in many game-changing aspects.

The original looks and feels like a film from that time period (late 60’s). Most of the interior scenes “feel” like they’re shot on a soundstage, which is a detriment, based solely on the film techniques of that time period. The audio is devoid of bass, and sounds tinny and hollow. John Wayne’s raspy voice is unmistakable, as is Robert Duvall’s, but the majority of the male performers sound as if they have some kind of nasal blockage in all their dialogue. The audio improvements in film throughout the years have been epic, and unfortunately the original True Grit suffers because of the lack of those advancements.

Actress Kim Darby played the first Mattie Ross and she is excellent in the role. The only complaint I have with her is that she looks much older than a 14-year-old girl and it was impossible to buy her at that age. She nonetheless embodies the tenacity and resolve of Mattie Ross and outshines anyone else in the film, including Mr. Wayne.

Wayne, Darby, and Campbell from the first "True Grit"

John Wayne was 61 years old when he made the film and it was the only film to garner him an Oscar. I tend to believe it was more of a lifetime achievement Oscar rather than one for his performance. The main difference in playing Rooster is that he was a gluttonous drunk bad ass rather than just a good ole boy bad ass, which was Wayne’s usual shtick.

Interestingly enough, according to IMDB, Wayne did not get along with Kim Darby on the set and later said that she was “the lousiest actress I ever worked with!” I never felt it in the film, but I think it probably worked in their favor, seeing as the relationship between Ross and Rooster was supposed to be strained.

The ending of the original is hammy and melodramatic and it had me rolling me eyes and laughing aloud. I realize that at that time period that’s how a lot of those types of films ended, but it was a bit of a stretch for this viewer. I half expected Darth Vader to pop out and yell “Noooooooooooooo!!!”

What the film lacked, like a lot of films of that era, was style. A lot of people get nasty about this and think I’m looking for John Wayne in The Matrix. No, that would be weird. And kind of awesome. What I’m talking about is artistic creativity, cinematic choices that lead to a film with vision and focus (much like my recently reviewed “Black Swan”). The original True Grit looks and feels like a paint-by- numbers film. Although there are some nice landscape shots, there is very little else that stands out in the way of directorial vision. Everything is lit the same, all the shots filmed at the exact same time of day (the night shots were “made” into night shots later), and it feels more like a stage production than a film.

Now, don’t get in a huff if you’re a JW fan. Don’t start spitting venom at me just yet. I didn’t hate the original by any means. It was quite enjoyable. But remember, I’m comparing two films here, taking into consideration all factors. So, chill. Put down your Winchester, take a shot of Whiskey, and cool your spur-laden heels.

The Coen brothers on the set of "True Grit"

Now, let’s take a look at the new version. Technically, it’s not a remake of the John Wayne film, but a new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. However, I do believe that the Coen Brothers paid homage to the original in many subtle ways throughout. I’ll leave it to the viewers to connect the dots.

First off, the initial spark that caught my eye to the whole project is the involvement of the Coen Brothers, who have made a stellar career out of their unique vision and filmmaking abilities. From Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Lebowski, and No Country For Old Men, The Coens’ have earned a reputation for making high quality, expertly acted films, all of which carry a varied and oftentimes twisted cast of characters. They put the Q in quirk. With that in mind, a remake of True Grit is perfect for their style and sensibilities. The story is ripe with offbeat characters, a great asset to any Coen Brothers movie.

Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in the new version, immediately throwing down the gauntlet to Wayne. Wayne was great as Wayne. Bridges is great as Kevin Flynn, The Dude, Starman, Bad Blake, Jack Baker, and any of the other varied characters he’s played in his long career. The Southern drawl is wholly original and engaging, reminiscent of the “crazy old man” syndrome stereotype, yet not always as predictable as one would think. Bridges’ Cogburn isn’t just tough and weathered, but flawed and even annoying to his counterparts, which makes him much more palatable had he played it completely straight.

Relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross with sharp wit, brash intelligence, and guarded vulnerability. Steinfeld has no problem holding her own with Bridges, which is no small feat, seeing as she is up against someone in a very overpowering role. A stark contrast to Darby/Wayne in the original, as I felt Darby easily out-acted Wayne in every scene she was in. In the new version, Steinfeld shines, but never over Bridges. Then, there’s Matt Damon (insert “Team America” voice now), as LaBoeuf, who plays the role just fine, but it’s a thankless role, just as it was in the original. LeBoeuf is a weak, underdeveloped character in both versions and merits very little interest. It really could be anyone in the role.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in the 2010 version

Josh Brolin plays Tom Chaney, the murderer of Mattie Ross’s father and all-around embodiment of a vile criminal, complete with slurred words and a physical slouch. Barry Pepper (the sniper from Saving Private Ryan…or the heroic savior from Battlefield Earth…however you want to remember him…it’s on you) shows up to fill the shoes of Robert Duvall from the original as Lucky Ned Pepper, the villainous leader of the gang that Chaney travels with.

Man, the cool thing about living in the old west is the nicknames. Modern nicknames are relegated to some pretty stupid shit, like a respelling of a properly spelled word or simply using a word-hyphen-letter combo. (Ice-T, Flo-Rida, 50 Cent, Danny De-Vito…)

There are some moments of quick-draw violence and a few shootouts, but True Grit isn’t an action film. It’s more of a quirky adventure hidden inside a portrait of relationships during the days of the Wild West and is pretty damn funny in many parts. It also benefits from some gorgeously filmed sequences, lending a feeling of depth and, ahem, grit.

Unlike the original’s “soundstage” feel, the new version is deeply immersed in the environment. Everything feels organic and I never got the sense that I was “on a set.” Additionally, the shots are chosen with care, the lighting is adjusted accordingly, and the sound design is light years away from an empty tin can. Naturally, these are the result of 40 plus years of technological advancement, so one would hope things would be better. With that being said, how could it not be, especially with the cast and crew involved?

The whole show is Bridges as Cogburn, followed closely by the outstanding work of Steinfeld. The tit-for-tat between them is a lot of fun and it’s likely that you’ll leave the theater quoting Cogburn in Bridges’ perfect drawl. Where Wayne’s performance was subdued (or at least relegated to his usual persona), Bridges gives a voice to Cogburn, unforgettable and distinguished. He is Rooster Cogburn, not Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. The court scene at the beginning of the film, same as the original, is the true test of who is the better Cogburn. Watch both scenes. If you still think Wayne is the better, then there’s no arguing with you and I won’t waste my breath or carpal tunnel.

Bridges' Cogburn

Here’s the skinny, though: Jeff Bridges is a better Rooster Cogburn. Make all the excuses about time periods and blah, blah, blah, I’ve heard it all before, times ten. A friend of mine once told me how disappointed he was when he showed movies that he loved growing up to his kids, only to have them react with boredom or outright hatred to the films. I mean, go back and watch Masters of the Universe (the cartoon). It’s atrocious. But, when I was a kid, that shit was Oscar-worthy. Sometimes our nostalgia gets in the way of our better judgment.

In my opinion, the Coen Brothers version of True Grit is a better film in every way. Although the original has its strengths, they are incomparable to the new version. Those that prefer the original will likely do so out of stubbornness or nostalgia. Again, that’s my opinion (and that’s what you’re here for). Take it for what it’s worth.

Those opposed to the new version should take the Pepsi challenge, as I did. Don’t hate without being informed. Get informed, then continue hating. But, y’know, get informed first.

4 Responses to The true “True Grit”

  1. Rooster PLs January 13, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    Loved the new true grit. Could have done without the new ending… To me it felt as lame and empty as the original ending. Mattie was awesome and I loved the dialogue from her and rooster. Pepper and brolin were great casts, as long as pepper is not top billed he does great. I want an eye patch now, I may revisit battlefield earth and not resist the urge to jab somthing into an eyesocket to make that dream come true.

    • Paul Shirey January 13, 2011 at 10:48 am #

      I was pretty confident you’d enjoy it. You are the second person to express dissatisfaction with the ending. I think the “new” ending is more in line with the ending in the novel, but can’t be positive as I haven’t read it.

      Battlefield Earth is the SHIT! Literally.

  2. Lee January 17, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    My biggest problem with it is Bridges. Like you, I’m not a Wayne fanboy by any means but I really do dislike JB in most things. I expected to dislike him in this and I did right from the courtroom scene. Maybe my true south accent detector is off a little but I kept hearing Karl Childers (Slingblade) in Bridges voice. I could have given it a better chance but I kept expecting to hear “I like me some french fried taters, mm hmm…”

    Having said that, I did watch it all the way through so there must have been something I liked. My favorite charachter, in both perhaps, was the horse trader.

    • Paul Shirey January 17, 2012 at 11:17 am #

      Definitely some voice similarities between Bridges’ Cogburn and ol’ Karl. However, it didn’t detract for me and I felt that it gave Bridges version of the character, well, more character. John Wayne was pretty much playing himself, whereas we know that Bridges is much more versatile, so it’s great to see him stretch out and get a fun role like this. The horse trader was excellent as was all of the cast. I recently rewatched this on Netflix streaming and enjoyed it just as much.

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