True Grit times two

I just got back from seeing the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I had prepared by watching the classic 1969 John Wayne film. The similarities and contrasts have some interesting messages about how audience tastes and filmmaking styles have changed in the last 40 years.

First, some obvious wins for the new movie. It’s far more period-accurate than the ’69 original; the details of language, costume, and manners are immaculately authentic for the end of the 1870s, with none of the Tinseltown-backlot feel that you get from a lot of “classic” Westerns. The violence is less theatrical, uglier, more immediate. And it’s nice that the negro family retainer is actually black, rather than looking like a white guy dipped in walnut stain. Audiences’ standards for verismilitude have risen, and filmmakers’ aspirations towards it as well.

But the one place where the Coen brothers most clearly score better than the ’69 original is in the portrayal of LaBoeuf. In the ’69 film Glen Campbell was a pretty-boy lightweight who could not really be taken very seriously in the role of a Texas Ranger by the audience and certainly wasn’t by John Wayne. Matt Damon’s version is far more credible, less a foil for the leads and more a character in his own right.

Wayne vs. Bridges is very a nearly a draw; I think Wayne wins on points, but wouldn’t argue very strenuously with someone making the opposite judgement. The latter-day Cogburn is older, more grim, more dissipated, and never develops the easy chemistry with Mattie Ross that was at the core of the original fim (more remarkably so in that Wayne, who had hoped to cast his own daughter in the part, disliked Kim Darby and barely spoke to her off the set). Also, Wayne handled his action scenes with a flair Bridges cannot quite match. The main thing that can be said for the Bridges version is that he achieves an admirable kind of flinty psychological realism that Wayne’s didn’t – but he gains this at the cost of much of the character’s likeability.

As for Mattie Ross, I regret to say that newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is not an improvement on 1969′s Kim Darby. She lacks the fire and much of the attractiveness that Darby brought to the character; her performance is creditable, but no more. I’m inclined to think this is mostly not her fault; she had the disadvantage of actually being 14 (rather than a much more poised 21-year-old playing a 14-year-old), and the nature of her performance makes me think she was neither well-coached nor well-directed.

The minor characters are pretty much a wash between the two films. Tom Cheney, the villain of the piece, neatly encapsulates their differences in style. The 1969 Cheney was a loser, a clown, an almost comic figure who wallowed in self-pity between crimes. The 2010 version is a mean, hot-eyed near-psychopath who fits the character’s back-story as a hardened outlaw much better.

In general the 2010 film is both visually and emotionally darker than the 1969 original; the Coen Brothers’ West is a sepia-toned and seedy place. As with the Bridges version of Cogburn, it convinces more thoroughly at the cost of losing much of the exuberance and sheer fun of the original.

There’s been a lot of buzz that the remake is a better film than the original and that the Jeff Bridges take on Rooster Cogburn is enough to make you forget John Wayne. Is it a better film? Not clearly, not to me; the gains and losses seem about equal. And no, the Dude’s Cogburn won’t make you forget the Duke’s and doesn’t even seem to be intended by Bridges to achieve that effect; the deprecation of Wayne is, I think, more a reflection of current fashion by people who never liked Wayne’s old-Hollywood style to begin with.

I will say this: if you see one film, you should see them both. Their flaws and virtues are almost exactly complementary and the 2010 version comments on the 1969 version in interesting ways. But, if inadvertently, the 1969 version also holds a light up to the 2010 remake that is not entirely flattering to our time. The Duke’s genial charisma may, in the end, endure better than the Dude’s intense method acting.

41 thoughts on “True Grit times two

  1. The most important difference: not one single note of optimism in the newer version. The new version is a fine film, not better just different. It is a kind of meta-Rashomon take on the story. The Coen’s see it one way, Henry Hathaway another.

    On the whole, I want to watch the original again. The remake, not so much.

  2. The book is just wonderful, by the way. The original movie was fairly faithful to it, but glossier, I guess.

  3. I’m an old-school Duke fan…the original movie is almost committed to memory. When I heard of the remake, I had to wonder “Why?!? Why this film above all?”…but I love the Coen bros, so I felt mighty conflicted.

    As expected, the trailers showed their darker, grittier style – to be expected. Overall, I eventually settled on looking forward to seeing it.

    Now I have doubts again. Of course I’ll see it – how can I not? – and I am sure that the film will be visually rich with fine dialog…but your review seems to reveal a critical flaw.

    Mattie Ross. The brilliance of the original is in the way the audience is led into the movie thinking that the ‘grit’ refers to Cogburn, yet the ‘true grit’ turns out to be in this justice-seeking little girl.

    Mattie is the whole point of the movie…if the Coen bros fail her, then the movie is unmoored – just another grizzled tale.

  4. Odd, I really enjoy the performance of Mattie Ross by Hailee Steinfeld. But YMMV.

  5. I liked Hailee Steinfield playing Mattie too. She definitely plays the role differently than Darby did, but it felt more authentic, much more like how a 14 year old would have really behaved back then.

  6. I don’t ever remember seeing the original, and I hadn’t planned to. So I don’t know if I would regard it as a great film. I do plan to see this remake because I just like everything the Coen Bros. do, even to the point of bias.

    I can’t think of a single remake of a great film that I thought was as good as the original. I almost always think ‘why did they bother?’

  7. I haven’t seen the original, but I liked the 2010 version. And having seen and enjoyed other Wayne movies, I can visualize what the 1969 version is probably like.

    The Coen version is not done in the tradition of the John Wayne-era Western, but is definitely intended to be grittier and more realistic. The awkward (to modern ears) use of language is a frequent reminder that people acted and thought differently in the 1870′s vs. today. The typical 1950′s/60′s Western film was far more in what David Gerrold (who was actually writing about Star Trek) referred to as “science fantasy”, where characters in a very different period of time nevertheless act, think, and speak like the 20th century audience.

    I’ll disagree with esr and agree with BigFire and hsu that the performance of Mattie Ross is excellent. She has us rooting for her with the super-competence she displays at the start of the film, and yet she isn’t a superhero without weaknesses. We are firmly reminded that she is only 14 later in the movie, and rightly so. I suspect that the 1969 Ross comes across as a solid young adult, while the 2010 Ross is a a precocious 14-year-old on the verge of adulthood but not quite there yet.

  8. Just got back from seeing it. Loved it. It doesn’t compete for my affections with the original; it is a deserving complementary take on the story. Ms. Steinfeld did a superb job, and hopefully has a bright future ahead of her.

    I was most impressed with Damon, actually. Campbell was more of a fashion statement than a credible foil for the Duke. Damon lit it up.

    With the girl’s performance, and the neat way they sewed up the tale some 25 years later, I felt happy that I had seen a fine film about a brave lass with true grit.

    A very different movie, but it has earned its slot in my DVD collection alongside the original (and “Rooster Cogburn”!)

  9. @Cathy

    I’d be interested to hear in what way the thinking and speech of the characters is markedly different then people of modern day. I just watched the movie and didn’t really pick up on that besides a sparser use of contractions and a bit more formality.

  10. >where characters in a very different period of time nevertheless act, think, and speak like the 20th century audience.

    Actually, that is a necessary pre-requisite for any fiction aimed at an audience of anything but complete nerds. More normal people need characters they can empathize with or there is no story as far as they are concerned. Most of my favorite science fiction novels are not particularly popular.

    Note that some differences are easily explained – for example, if you ever shaved with a straight razor, you will understand the popularity of mustaches in the nineteenth century. And the bit about contractions I have doubts about how authentic that was – if you look at written examples, contractions were common even in early Modern English and definitely in a lot of what I have read from around the time of the Revolution. That sounds more like something people expect to be true, and the movie people playing up to common expectations.

  11. krygny Says:

    > I can’t think of a single remake of a great film that I thought was as good as the original.
    > I almost always think ‘why did they bother?’

    Do you suspect is it regession towards the mean (great films are more likely to father re-makes), or do we internalize great films somehow, so re-makes inevitably seem like reflections rather than works in their own right?

  12. >That sounds more like something people expect to be true, and the movie people playing up to common expectations.

    But, on the evidence from primary sources reporting period speech, many mid- and late 19th-century speakers of American English actually did use contractions less than we do. This seems to have been a result of a fashion from 1830 onwards for “elevated” elocution that was connected to status assertion in both the Northern middle class and Southern gentry. Another consequence of the fashion was the widespread use of polysyllabic coinages modeled on Greek and Latin that have since mostly passed out of use; see this page on ‘absquatulate’ for an example.

    Another feature of period speech that the remake did a good job of reflecting was pervasive references to Bible stories and incidents. These provided a rich set of metaphors (“I felt like the prophet Ezekiel”) that are today no longer generally intelligible outside very conservative religious communities but were then much more widely understood.

    The speech style of the characters in the Coen remake reminded me very strongly of still-extant letters home written by Civil War soldiers. To a modern eye these exhibit an odd combination of erudite-seeming usages with borderline illiteracy. They reflect a pervasive concern with writing and speaking up to perceived norms of gentility even by people with no formal education at all.

  13. They reflect a pervasive concern with writing and speaking up to perceived norms of gentility even by people with no formal education at all.

    I’m not sure about “and speaking”. I think that there was a sharp distinction made between casual conversation, formal speech, and The Written Word. When you had to dip a quill in ink before committing it to paper, it instilled a formality that is absent in the high-speed thumbfests of modern txt spk.

    Those soldiers knew that the letters they sent home might be the last communication they ever had with their loved ones, (and probably would be the last for a while) and the letters would likely become keepsakes. They had good reason to write more carefully even than, say, a businessman would in correspondence with a supplier or vendor.

  14. I appreciate the comparison between the two versions, but I think it would be more valuable to compare them to the book on which they were originally based. I read the book last week and I’m planning on seeing the movie in the next week or so. Not having seen the remake and not remembering the original, I can only comment from the perspective of the book.

    In the book LaBoeuf is “a pretty-boy lightweight who could not really be taken very seriously in the role of a Texas Ranger”, enough so that several people express doubt that he really is a Ranger.

    The book is Mattie’s first person recollection of the events as told much later in her life. Mattie is the head of her family, in that she can read, write, do figures, and understand business. If the movie does not present her as headstrong, stubborn, and overly determined for her 14 years, the movie has cheated the audience of one of the primary drivers of the story. The (hopefully) period accurate language and frequent biblical references are half the fun of reading the book. Your review implies that the Coen brothers captured the language and references, which makes me more excited to see the remake.

    I’ll pick up the best copy of the new one I can find in the on base bizarre (Afghanistan), although at this point it’s probably just a video camera in a Russian movie theater copy. That experience will make watching it back home on Bluray all the more delightful.

  15. >Your review implies that the Coen brothers captured the language and references

    Yes. I have not yet read the novel, but I would bet heavily that the movie captures its language pretty exactly.

  16. re: chris purgrud

    I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with how they treat the things you mentioned. Especially for the treatment of Mattie. She’s most definitely the one in charge, from the moment she stepped off the train in Ft. Smith to take possession of her father’s body. The horse trading scene is actually being discussed over at some law blog such as Volokh Conspiracy http://volokh.com/2011/01/14/true-grit-and-the-law/.

    I’ll be getting this one in BD when it gets released as well as the original Wayne version.

  17. I’ve neither read the book, nor seen the remake; and I’ve no memory of the Duke version, as I saw it at least 30 years ago. So take what I say with whatever grains of salt necessary. I’ve read repeatedly from reviewers who have been exposed to all three that the remake is much more faithful to the book. That has been a common theme among the reviewers who hold the current version in high regard.

  18. “I’d be interested to hear in what way the thinking and speech of the characters is markedly different then people of modern day. I just watched the movie and didn’t really pick up on that besides a sparser use of contractions and a bit more formality.”

    I think you pretty well nailed it above. If someone spoke like that today, or even wrote on the blog like that, you would think that he was a bit odd.

    “If the movie does not present her as headstrong, stubborn, and overly determined for her 14 years, the movie has cheated the audience of one of the primary drivers of the story.”

    You won’t be disappointed. She is all of the above, and then some. She is so firmly in control of the situation as the movie opens that you laugh with her at the expense of her antagonists. As the movie progresses, we see more of her weaknesses and vulnerabilities, which is important to seeing her as a real person (as well as reminding us that she is only 14).

  19. Marco Says:

    Do you suspect is it regession towards the mean (great films are more likely to father re-makes), or do we internalize great films somehow, so re-makes inevitably seem like reflections rather than works in their own right?

    I think some modern filmmakers feel that great films of the past don’t hold up well in current culture. That if they are remade in a more contemporary style, they can be improved. One of the greatest failures that comes to mind id “The Manchurian Candidate”. Besides being one of the best films ever made, the remake is completely removed from its Cold-War context. They tried to imply connections between Viet Nam and China that have no historical basis (as Korea did). I just can’t believe the producers thought they could match the original in any way. I’m sure they thought they could make money. I assume they did.

  20. @William B Swift:
    “More normal people need characters they can empathize with or there is no story as far as they are concerned. Most of my favorite science fiction novels are not particularly popular.”

    Actually, this is exactly what drives, even in modern times, the best Fantasy and Science Fiction story ever written: The Odyssey

    Here we have a story “written” (or sung) almost 3,000 years ago. It is the second literary work known in the Western world, and the first novel, romance, fantasy, and FS story.

    And it still beats all but a few works written after it, even for a modern reader. (and I am hard pressed to name books that are better)

  21. > Actually, this is exactly what drives, even in modern times, the best Fantasy and Science Fiction story ever written: The Odyssey

    That’s right. I ***TOTALLY*** empathize with a petty thug leader who ruled some backwater town, then instead of discharging his leadership and family duty ran off to join what was basically an unprovoked war of aggression.

    Then he was instrumental in perpetrating mass genocide perpetrated on the pretext of an extramarital affair by a big-time thug.

    Then he whored, caroused, pilllaged and murdered his way home **for 10 years** ’cause he couldn’t control his bunch of thugs enough to refrain from opening a bag. And in case someone says that it took 10 years because of interference by Poseidon, then first, the interference was revenge for blinding his son cyclops Polyphemus; and second, Odysseus was also experiencing a counterbalance intereference from Athena.

    Oh yeah, and then he mass murders a bunch of guys for trying to woo a woman who’s supposed to be *a widow* and was totally leading all said suitors on (and who were by the way the citizens of the state he was supposed to be a ruler of).

    YAY!

  22. @DVK
    “That’s right. I ***TOTALLY*** empathize with a petty thug leader who ruled some backwater town, then instead of discharging his leadership and family duty ran off to join what was basically an unprovoked war of aggression. ”

    You just nailed 50% of books.

    But you know, it is not the “plot” that makes a great story, but the writing. Getting everybody to identify with a thug just wanting to go home is great writing. You know, because that is Odysseus, a guy who hates his job, wants to spend more time with his family, but gets lost and stuck on the way home. And then his car (ship) breaks down. How many people can make a great story out of that? (obviously, many)

  23. re: DVK

    Well, he didn’t join the war willingly. It’s inception came about due to a binding treaty that he crafted to ensured that war does not come about in Greece due to fight over Helen (all of Helen’s suitors will abide by her decision, and ALL will come in her husband’s defense, The Oath of Tyndareus). Unfortunately, even though he’s going to be happily married, in order for his scheme to work, he had to be in it. Thus, when Helen was abducted, he’s bind by the treaty he created to go there… But that’s just his version of the story.

  24. “Those soldiers knew that the letters they sent home might be the last communication they ever had with their loved ones, (and probably would be the last for a while) and the letters would likely become keepsakes. They had good reason to write more carefully even than, say, a businessman would in correspondence with a supplier or vendor.”

    There’s also a lot of natural selection that has gone on over the last 150 years. Those poignant, well written letters featured in Ken Burns’ productions are the best ones selected from a lot of clunkers.

    @DVK: Odysseus didn’t want to go. The story was that when the summons came, he went out plowing his fields while sowing them with salt. (He was pretending to be insane.) The soldiers disbelieved him, and so they took his newborn son and placed him directly in the path of his father’s plow. Odysseus wouldn’t harm his son, and his draft evasion attempt was foiled. (Seems like 1969 and 3000BC had a lot more in common than one would suppose….)

  25. @ Cathy: “I’ll disagree with esr and agree with BigFire and hsu that the performance of Mattie Ross is excellent. She has us rooting for her with the super-competence she displays at the start of the film, and yet she isn’t a superhero without weaknesses. We are firmly reminded that she is only 14 later in the movie, and rightly so. I suspect that the 1969 Ross comes across as a solid young adult, while the 2010 Ross is a a precocious 14-year-old on the verge of adulthood but not quite there yet.”

    I agree with this. I think that Ms. Steinfeld’s performance is rendered more convincing by the fact that she is only 14. To me, she came across as a precocious girl (she’s the business’s bookkeeper, we learn, and she talks as though she’s better read than any of the other characters) who has been taught to stand up for what’s right and not to let obstacles stop her–even when she can’t possibly have any idea what the obstacles might be. As a (formerly) precocious girl myself, I found that both convincing and very, very appealing.

  26. >@ Cathy: “I’ll disagree with esr and agree with BigFire and hsu that the performance of Mattie Ross is excellent.

    I note that none of these agreements seems to have been registered by people who’ve actually seen the 1969 movie. Sorry, compared to Kim Darby, Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is weak. Good for a 14-year-old, but not up to the original.

  27. Eric, I’ve recently seen the 1969 movie, and plan on seeing the remake this weekend. I’ve read the original novel. I found Kim Darby’s portrayal to be…soft and whitewashed compared to the book; her role was somewhat altered from the original text to make Wayne’s portrayal (which is more paternalistic than the book) seem more plausible.

  28. “…I note that none of these agreements seems to have been registered by people who’ve actually seen the 1969 movie…”

    *ahem*

    I agree that the quality of Darby’s acting was superior – she was a more experienced 21yo adult, after all – but I disagree with your characterization of Ms. Steinfeld as ‘weak’…subjective though such disagreement is ;)

    I ‘felt’ her performance – truer to the book – and thought she did herself great credit.

  29. “…I note that none of these agreements seems to have been registered by people who’ve actually seen the 1969 movie…”

    It has been several years since I’ve seen the 1969 version of True Grit. I’ll add it to my Netflix queue, so I can compare it against the 2011 version more directly, instead of against a several year old memory.

    However, my preference is for grittier movies, so my Steinfield vs Darby opinion could be influenced by the fact that the 2011 version of the film falls more in line with my tastes.

  30. >However, my preference is for grittier movies, so my Steinfield vs Darby opinion could be influenced by the fact that the 2011 version of the film falls more in line with my tastes.

    Yes. Also by how heavily you weight the details of behaving like a normal 14-year-old. Steinfeld does a better job of that because she really is one – but for exactly that reason she didn’t make me believe Mattie Ross dominating almost all the adults she encountered the way Darby did.

  31. It seems they’ve made “The Logn Walk”.

    Dunno. Much as I like computer science, I don’t think I can get into a movie about depth-first search.

  32. @Nancy Lebovitz
    “As for the Odyssey, I’d have thought the point was the cool monsters and hazards, not whether Ulysses was of good character.”

    The real attraction of Odysseus is that he is just a smart person. He has no super-powers, is no god, nor can he do magic. But he wins just by his mortal cunning. And he has mortal feelings. He is doing it all because he wants to go home. He never wants to fight, nor does he wants to do dangerous things. I think the monsters attracted the male listeners, the fact that he did it all to come back to his wife the female listeners. ;-)

    Compare it to the Ilias. That is full of super human warriors, doing heroic deeds etc. In the end, the Greek won because Odysseus came with a ruse.

    You can never aspire to become an Ajax or Achilles. But you can aspire to become an Odysseus.

  33. It seems they’ve made “The Logn Walk”.

    Dunno. Much as I like computer science, I don’t think I can get into a movie about depth-first search.

    I saw the typo right after I hit “Submit Comment”.

    Now, I might go to see The Random Walk.

  34. I haven’t seen the movie, but the links are to discussions of Mattie’s religion. They improve the odds of my wanting to see the movie.

    To my eyes, the quotes from the novel and the movie demonstrate Mattie’s disillusionment with religion and her resolve to do what she views as the Right Thing(tm), regardless of it. But perhaps I’m just being cynical.

  35. You should’ve called this post “Two Grit”

    ESR says: You are correct. I am humbled, and bow before a master.

  36. Picked up the DVD at the Bazaar last week. Made the mistake of watching the movie two days after rereading the book. I need to watch the movie again to give it a truly fair shake. Overall, I can appreciate most of the changes they had to make to fit the story into a shorter movie. If anything, they softened Mattie from the book, they softened most of the characters a bit. I’ll let those who take the time to read the book make their own comparisons.

    Reading through the comments I gather that if they had not softened Mattie up a bit, she would not have been accepted as believable by modern audiences. I would have thought more people had experience with what can be accomplished by a learned, stubborn, determined, and deeply precocious 14 year old female. Some forces of nature are best accommodated, arguing just makes your brain hurt.

  37. This True Grit is a very impressive piece of work, beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, and if you had never seen the original, it might be getting even higher praise. -Jeremy Bradshaw

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