The original "True Grit" ends with a blurry freeze frame of one-eyed fat man Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) on horseback, hat held high and whooping a silent "Yee-haw!" as the end credits roll. It was 1969, and every John Wayne movie was first and foremost a John Wayne movie and directors like Henry Hathaway knew their primary job was to burnish the Wayne legend. Just a year later, Wayne would need to be introduced by a hallelujah choir - "Chisum! John Chisum!" – which seemed only fair since he was, at last, Oscar-winner John Wayne. But in 1969, a classy freeze frame was still enough.
Not burdened with the responsibility of beatifying their star, the Coen Brothers end their new take on "True Grit" (2010) in a very different place. In a coda set years after the film's main action (and not used in the original), an adult Mattie Ross, silhouetted against a snow-gray sky, walks away from the camera over the crest of a hill as a cold wind howls. Hardly a triumphant summation like the original, but the Coens are interested in exploring more serious territory this time around.
Of course this is the Coens we're talking about so it probably comes as little surprise that their film is simultaneously grimmer (yes, grittier) and funnier than the original. John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn was introduced hopping off his mount and tucking his rifle under his arm as he brought an outlaw into town to face the judge. Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn makes his debut in a slightly less dramatic fashion -- while making Duke-y in an outhouse.
It's a classic moment of skewed Coen humor. 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has come to town to retrieve the body of her father who was shot by the cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Seeking a U.S. marshal to hunt down Chaney, she learns about the "meanest" and most "pitiless" of the lot and swiftly tracks him down. Knocking on the door of the outhouse, she tells Rooster: "I have business with you." Rooster (voice-only): "I have prior business." Mattie: "You have been at it for quite some time." Rooster (thumping on the outhouse wall): "There is no clock on my business!"
As Rooster soon learns, Mattie will not be trifled with in matters of business of any kind. Following in the footsteps of the uber-plucky Kim Darby, Hailee Steinfeld fashions Mattie as a tween-Terminator with clipped diction, sometimes eerily devoid of affect, and absolutely unstoppable when she sets her mind to a goal. It's a challenging performance for any actress, let alone a 13 year-old making her feature debut. Just as was the case with Kim Darby (who had the advantage of being a veteran 21 year-old playing 14), the Mattie Ross character and her unique voice will grate on some viewers' nerves. I only recently came to appreciate Darby's idiosyncratic performance, alternately irritating and endearing but always committed, myself.
Steinfeld is more than suited to meet the challenge, capturing all the verve and vulnerability that Darby brought while bringing a fresh naiveté that perhaps only an actress of the appropriate age for the role could offer. She is tough, but never implausibly so. She has "sand" but she's no hero, and like most young girls she loves ponies. This has been a banner year for young actresses. Along with Elle Fanning's eye-opening turn in "Somewhere," Steinfeld delivers the best performance by any American actress that I have seen in 2010.
Comparing Bridges' performance to John Wayne's is necessary but somewhat less fruitful. Wayne had long since perfected his on-screen persona and worked it to tremendous effect with Rooster Cogburn, one of his most iconic roles even if "True Grit" wasn't one of the very best John Wayne films. While the Duke was simply being the Duke (not so simple – how many other actors could have played the Duke?), it's a little harder to suss out what Bridges is doing.
Buried in a mass of scruffy hair and working a thick, mumbled accent that often sounds like its own punch line, Bridges' Cogburn seems like an inherently comic character on the surface, but this Rooster can be much more of a bastard than Wayne's. Part of the Duke's persona was the guarantee that no matter how ugly things got, you knew it was going to be OK because, darn it, the Duke always meant well. There are no guarantees this time around, and Bridges' likeable drunkard can turn mean and unreliable when the mood strikes; as he admits, he is a failed husband and father and it's easy to see why. He also likes to kick children though, to be fair, they were asking for it.
It's easy to see what attracted the Coen Brothers to the project. Novelist Charles Portis (whose 1968 book served as the source for both films) writes dialogue like a Coen Brother from another mother, and his slightly stilted, mostly contraction-free verbiage is a perfect match to their sensibilities. Actor Barry Pepper (who plays outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper in the new film) describes the dialogue as "cowboy poetry done by Shakespeare." I don't know whether Portis or the Coens are responsible for lines like "It is an unfair leg up in any competition to shoot your opposing number." But it's not hard to listen to the dialogue in "True Grit" and hear echoes of prior Coen hits such as "Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase" and "Why... he was hardly a sentient being."
Matt Damon, greatly improving on the Glen Campbell role from the original, provides some of the film's better comic moments as the preening La Boeuf (pronounce "Le Beef" ‘cause this is America, dang it), another lawman on the trail of dastardly Tom Chaney. In what might be the line delivery of the year, a smug Damon leans back in his chair and pulls back his jacket lapel. Shit-eating grin planted firmly on his face, he fondles his silver star and says to young Mattie: "Texas Ranger." Young Mattie is not impressed.
Comedy aside, the aforementioned coda brings one of the previously understated aspects of the story into relief. While the original film wasn't a lark, Mattie was played mostly for her lovable feistiness. But the story of a 14 year-old girl whose life is consumed by a desire for vengeance is an inherently tragic one. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the few adults who are (for a price) part of her life not only fail to dissuade her from submitting to bloodlust, but enable her obsession. Where the original suggested a neat and potentially happy ending, this film's coda suggests that the events of this revenge tale leave a dark and lingering legacy, on Rooster's soul as well as Mattie's. And Steinfeld's steely performance (more remarkable every time I think about it) provides evidence of a pathology that was already deeply rooted in this young lady and exacerbated by fresh trauma. For me, this is where the Coens' "True Grit" really soars. While many of the individual scenes in the film adhere closely to the original, the two movies have radically different focuses.
Roger Deakins' gorgeous photography captures both naturalistic panoramas and surrealist moments of abstraction, particularly in the film's harrowing final scenes which border on noirish animation. Whether you view this as a remake or a separate adaptation of the novel (as the Coens prefer to think of it), "True Grit" exceeds its predecessor in almost every way. Deftly balancing grotesquerie and comedy, the Coen Brothers bring their unique touch to a full-blown Western and the net result is one of the best American feature films of the year.