Sunday, February 13, 2011

True Grit Redux

By Lars Trodson

Outside of framing device used to open and close the film, I have no idea how the Coen brothers version of “True Grit” differs materially from the 1969 John Wayne movie. It just simply doesn’t add up that this new version embodies some new vision of the story -- or that it has been reimagined in some unique way. In fact, the bulk of both movies are remarkably the same, and I would argue that some of the scenes played out in the Coen version are weaker than in Henry Hathaway’s.

It’s true, yes, that the Coens open up with Maddie Ross, now well into middle age, reflecting back on the murder of her father and her meeting with Rooster Cogburn. It ends with Maddie seeking Rooster out, in what must have been at the end of a very long life.

But these two sections alone do not, as the Coens have asserted, put the movie squarely on the shoulders of 14-year old Maddie - which what they have said makes it different than the Wayne version. The 1969 movie was all about Rooster. This version is all about Mattie.

Not really; not at all. Yes, Rooster was played by the outsized Wayne in what turned out to be his Oscar-winning role. But you can almost see Jeff Bridges trying not to do too much with the role here. It’s a square, solid performance, but you can tell that Bridges knew that if he strayed too far, if he tried anything radical, audiences just wouldn’t accept it. He knew he was in shadow of Wayne, and he let it go.

Mattie, as played by Hailee Steinfeld, does a lovely job. But simply casting an age appropriate actress in the film doesn’t tip the balance in favor of a wholesale remake. Hailee does not erase the image of Kim Darby, who did a beautiful job in that earlier movie, and their parts seem equal in both versions. In fact, I can’t think of any really important scenes focusing on Mattie that we get to see in the Coens’ movie that were ignored in Hathaway’s. It just isn’t there.

There are some scenes, of course, that are virtually the same. Take the great early scene in which Mattie sells some ponies back to a merchant. That merchant was played by the great, quirky character actor Strother Martin in the first version and by Dakin Matthews in the second. The first version is much funnier, much snappier -- and the dialogue is almost wholly lifted from the Portis book in each. The Coen brothers version of this scene is just not as good.

After that, from the moment Rooster takes off on his own without Mattie, and she jumps in the river to catch up, from the tracking of Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper now and Robert Duvall in the earlier), to the murder of Moon in the cabin (which is much, much more exciting, violent and eerie in the Hathaway version and has Dennis Hopper, to boot), to the final showdown in the field when Rooster yells “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!”, the two movies are bizarrely similar.

It is true that Glen Campbell was a horrible choice to play LaBoeuf in the first version -- a concession to his pop music success and probably some insurance as to whether Wayne could bring in the young people -- but I just can’t find any evidence that the Coens did anything other than make a solid version of a very fine book. They did not add anything new to it. All they did was be smart enough to add a public relations spin on why they decided to make a new version of a movie classic. They traded in on the earlier version’s immense good will in a savvy way.

Good for the Coens. But as they garner more awards for their “True Grit” and its box office tally continues to grow, rather than try to sweep aside the debt they owe Henry Hathaway and John Wayne and Kim Darby, they probably ought to start to acknowledge it.