No doubt, when you choose to remake something anew you will draw comparisons and criticisms. The same is true if you choose to bring a book to the silver screen. This is why it’s all the more surprising to me, that 2010’s True Grit by the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, a remake of what is considered by some to be a Western classic, was welcomed with such open arms by critics. It just didn’t deserve it and as much as I love Jeff Bridges, he is no Rooster Cogburn.
But, before you go filling up the comments section with your vitriol laced Hatorade – hear me out.
I wanted to like the new True Grit.
I am a fan of the Coen brothers’ work and well, who doesn’t love “The Dude,” I mean “The Dude Abides,” right? I loved No Country for Old Men (well, up until the last 10 minutes) and I am a fan of Josh Brolin as well. But the new True Grit, to a tried and true fan of the old, is just a sheer disappointment.
Some will argue that movie making alone has changed so much that there is no way you could say Henry Hathaway’s version can compare cinematically with the Coen brothers – to that I say, judge them in their respective time periods. But even without allowing for what technology has brought, the directorial decision to make this movie so dark, both visually and story wise seems designed specifically for the Coen’s reinterpretation to be “taken more seriously” than the original. Something I felt was a mistake and shows a lack of understanding of what Hathaway’s version actually accomplished.
In fact, as I watched the two movies only a couple days apart, I was struck with the lack of heart that 2010’s True Grit displayed. One of the things that always made watching “The Duke” so satisfying as he turned in, what would be his Oscar winning performance, was the softness and lightness he brought to the role, juxtaposed to Cogburn’s weathered, crusty demeanor, which was also Wayne’s matching reputation up to that point, onscreen.
Cogburn is accompanied on his journey by Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) a smart and sassy young woman who won’t take no for an answer and who is coming of age on the trail to hunt down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) and the slick but naïve, young Texas Ranger, Le Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who is after Chaney for a shooting in Texas. As you watch these three interact, you can’t help but feel the affection that is growing between them.
To me, the 1969 version of True Grit is one of the purest westerns ever made – its brilliance lies in its simplicity. The plot is basic, a couple of lawmen tracking down an outlaw with a side of vengeance. That’s why I think Joel and Ethan got it wrong – they focused on that plot and were forced to tease out the darkness to give it depth. But in film, like in life, it’s much harder to make the light shine than to wallow in the dark. It takes more than filming at night and stark terrain. What Hathaway did was purposeful but not braggadocios, it was subtle and resonated emotionally, without being pretentious. It showcased the film’s central theme without beating you over the head with it – that true grit has nothing to do with how tough you are but rather how vulnerable you’re willing to be. It takes guts to make attachments and leave yourself open to hurt.
Sadly that theme was languishing somewhere on the back of a milk carton in 2010.
Also MIA, was the sexual awakening of Mattie (granted the Coen’s made her younger – another mistake) and the subtle sexual chemistry between Mattie and Le Boeuf, whose character was reduced, which threw off the balance of the story. Beyond the absence of vibrant lush scenery (one of the stars of the 1969 version), the Coen brothers also forgot the first rule of storytelling – show don’t tell. In the opening sequence the two movies are starkly different. The Duke’s version takes the few extra minutes to show you the closeness and respect between Mattie and her father and sets up Mattie’s character as whipsmart and wise beyond her years. It also shows the death of her father by a man whom he trusted and was trying to help. By contrast the Coens gloss it all over, choosing instead to tell you through narration.
I could go through the movie scene by scene and tell you why the original is better than the 2010 version but the truth of the matter is this – maybe it’s better because they had less to work with. Maybe the technology of today and the expectations of an audience who is used to being bombarded by imagery in their television and movies filled with fast paced, slicker-than-slick action sequences and who has developed a preference for 400 word blog posts and sound bites of information delivered in 140 characters or less. Maybe these are the reasons 2010’s version was so lauded. Because no one could sit still long enough to enjoy the quiet but meaningful sequences in Hathaway’s vision. Their short attention spans just couldn’t allow for all the space the movie gives you, to let the subtleties sink in.
As far as acting goes, Brolin and Damon do alright and so does Bridges, though I have to say it just felt like he threw on an eye patch, put a couple marbles in his mouth and revisited Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. I mean we’re talking about standing toe-to-toe with John-Fucking-Wayne, man. The Dude would appreciate that. Mostly I felt sad by the directors’ and actor’s choices to move so quickly past the iconic scenes and lines of this movie (a choice obviously made in an effort simply to avoid comparison.) I felt so saddened by Jeff Bridges’ choice in particular to move so quickly and weakly though the line of the movie, “Fill your hands you sonofabitch!” It’s such a great line, delivered perfectly in the original.
The most disappointing character though, was Mattie.
Though Hallie Steinfeld does a good job portraying, what I think, was the Coen’s vision, she is not Mattie Ross by any means. Steinfeld’s Mattie is kind of snotty and mean, she seems to think grit is simply being bitchy while Darby innately knew that her character’s grit was built on love and determination. It’s that spunky determination that makes Mattie an unforgettable character. Overall, the two portrayals couldn’t be more different and some of that is due to the difference in how their age is looked upon by their directors – in the Coens’ version, Mattie is the 14 year old girl of today (more like a 10 year old), while Darby’s is clearly more true to a time when a woman of 14 ought to be thinking about getting hitched.
Undoubtedly, someone here will want to bring up that the Coen brothers were not doing a remake – they were focusing on the book and not on the 1969 Hathaway version. To which I say, “You bought that crap?” That’s Hollywood spin, pure and simple – and it worked. Though comparisons would obviously be made, no reviewer would dare dive in headlong in comparing them frame by frame or too heavily pit Jeff Bridges against John Wayne. What the Coen’s did with their, “We’re not doing a remake,” was to recast their reviews before they were made. They squelched most naysayers in their tracks – because most of us, had not read the book.
But the truth is, because most of us have not read the book (fans of the new or old version) we have only to rely on watching the new without ever having seen the old and/or pitting the two in a grudge match.
I chose the Grudge match.
Because, though I have not read the book (I now intend to) all of the things I grew up loving about the old version, all of the things that made True Grit a sentimental favorite for me, don’t exist in 2010, including the man I used to share watching it with – my father.
In the end, the old version is by far better. The new one focused on getting the plot from point A to point B, while maintaining a let’s-explore-the-darkness-of-the-human-heart vibe and seemed to miss all the wonderful nuances of the John Wayne version. The surrogate father relationship Mattie develops with Rooster, even as he affectionately calls her baby sister, the likeable chutzpah and determination of Mattie and the closeness and deep love of both her father and Rooster. Watching it again, all these years later brought me closer to my dad in a time when I still find myself missing him daily. One thing I am thankful for though – that he was not around to see the 2010 version.Tags: 1969 True Grit, 2010 True Grit, DVD review True Grit, Henry Hathaway, Jeff Bridges, Joel and Ethan Coen, John Wayne, The Dude, The Duke