Adaptations are always difficult—for the filmmakers, of course, but also for viewers who know the original and face a challenge in trying to meet the new movie on its own terms. With True Grit, the latest offering from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, there are not one but two previous versions: Charles Portis' excellent 1968 novel and the famous 1969 film. I nearly wrote "well-known 1969 film," but given some of the asinine things written or said about it lately, it's clear many people do not, in fact, know the film; they just draw on a reservoir of cliché assumptions that pass for received wisdom.
The Coens' True Grit is an extremely faithful adaptation of Portis' book but not a remake of the earlier picture. Virtually all the dialogue—glorious, crusty, 19th-century ornate—comes from Portis and can be heard in both movies. Both tell the same story Portis did, with some not-ruinous softening in the 1969 version and none at all in the new one. Certain shot setups in the new picture closely resemble shots Henry Hathaway and his cameraman Lucien Ballard made 41 years ago, but the Coens aren't imitating or paying homage. It's simply that there's only one vantage from which to frame certain moments in the story.
The opening is pure Coen, reminiscent of the folktale prologue to A Serious Man. Through heavy snowfall we perceive the spectral glow from a doorway and a figure lying dead at the outer reach of the light. The shot holds as a woman's voice, flint hard, speaks of her father's murder by hired hand Tom Chaney, who then rode off into the Indian Nations on a horse belonging to the victim. Past tense and present fuse as a mounted silhouette thunders through the shot at that point, more phantasm than corporeal reality. The woman is Mattie Ross, speaking to us (though we don't yet know it) from a quarter-century's remove.
Her 14-year-old self (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in the town of Fort Smith, Ark., to claim her father's body and seek retribution. The local sheriff suggests enlisting a U.S. marshal to go after the killer. Reuben Cogburn is neither his first nor last recommendation, but Mattie is taken with Cogburn's bona fides: "a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking." He is also a drunken reprobate devoid of sentiment and not ashamed to have killed (at least) 25 men in his time.
And he is played by Jeff Bridges, secularly sanctified in the Church of Coen as "The Dude," supremely grufty hero of the 1998 The Big Lebowski. An Oscar winner last year for Crazy Heart and an actor who's starred in more underwatched great films than any other performer, Bridges wears the role of "Rooster" Cogburn proudly. But he also gives a more mannered and less compelling performance than John Wayne did, for all Wayne's luxuriating in the opportunity to be colorful and self-satirizing. (Wayne won his own Oscar on that occasion, and deserved it—yea verily, even over Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy!)
In fact, with one clear exception, the cast of the 2010 movie, for all their virtues, pales alongside the memory of their predecessors. Dakin Matthews gets up to some fine, deadpan-comic business as the horse trader Mattie outsmarts twice (three times?), but the sainted Strother Martin got there firstest with the mostest. Paul Rae and Domhnall Gleeson (son of Brendan) nail the brute cunning and three-steps-behind dimness of their respective roles as outlaw groundlings Quincy and Moon, whom Mattie and Rooster catch up to in a remote sod cabin; but Jeremy Slate and especially Dennis Hopper rose to a higher pitch in 1969—and Hathaway's version of that scene outdoes the Coens' in ferocity.
Josh Brolin (Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men) rates third billing for his brief screentime as Tom Chaney. He's younger and dodgier than Jeff Corey was, but falls short of Corey's lyric self-pity. And lamentably he throws away Corey/Chaney's sublime screech at the universe: "Everything happens to me! I'm shot by a child!"
The new film is just about stolen by two players who have only one scene together (and even then they're 400 yards apart). No surprise that Matt Damon represents a quantum leap over country-western singer Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef), the Texas Ranger who's been pursuing Chaney for another offense, and who develops separate but equally testy relationships with Rooster and Mattie. First glimpsed mysteriously lighting his pipe in the blue of a Fort Smith evening, he evolves from apparent pompous jerk (a delicious moment pulling aside his jacket to display his Ranger's badge) to redoubtable ally, with a memorable sideways lurch into being the butt of Cogburn's sadistic humor.
The other player is Barry Pepper, who, notwithstanding the serendipity of his surname, seemed unlikely to rival the pre-stellar Robert Duvall's turn as outlaw leader "Lucky" Ned Pepper. Duvall's eminence is secure, but Barry Pepper is nothing short of amazing as Lucky Ned. Again, his screentime is limited but his every second is charged with ambiguity, unlikely civility swapping valences with menace. We just don't know what this man may do next, even if we're already familiar with the story.
So if I had to pick only one True Grit movie to take to the proverbial desert island, it'd be Hathaway's, Wayne's, Ballard's and, while we're at it, Elmer Bernstein's: that gentleman was Wayne's music scorer of choice in the Sixties, and the Bernstein sound laid over one of Lucien Ballard's high-country shots of quivering aspen and immeasurable, clear-air vastness imbues the moment with mystery. (The score of the 2010 version, by regular Coen collaborator Carter Burwell, runs variations on "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a folk hymn best known from Night of the Hunter.)
The beauty of it is, though, that we don't have to pick one True Grit. Both are worth having. We take for granted that any Coen picture is going to be a work of impeccable craftsmanship, and yes, Roger Deakins is at the camera once again. The brothers' fidelity to Portis' novel not only honors a great literary achievement but also makes for a narrative with fascinating interruptions, digressions and enigmatic encounters—in short, storytelling of a perversity the Coens usually have to generate on their own.
Like the book but unlike the 1969 movie, their True Grit has a narrator, Mattie, and keeps faith with her point of view. What she doesn't know, we don't know. This pays big dividends at the climax, when the action becomes starker than anything seen heretofore and then moves into hallucinatory myth. Also, throughout the film there is consistent attention to the distinctions between price, cost and worth—concepts important to "Mattie the bookkeeper," and to the brothers Coen.
December 22, 2010; Queen Anne & Magnolia News
Copyright © 2010 by Richard T. Jameson