Remakes have always been a tricky minefield. You can stumble on magic and get An Affair to Remember (1957), a remake of Love Affair (1939), that surpasses the original--no small feat since Love Affair is still a damn good film. Or as the Coen Brothers have discovered themselves with their 2004 remake of The Ladykillers, even with a two-time Oscar winner in the lead, you can create a leaden movie that's not a wholly terrible film, just a boring one, with some questionable character choices*.
Even with that on their resume, there was little doubt that in the hands of the Brothers Coen, a True Grit redo wasn't insurmountable. While the 1969 version is one of John Wayne's better known flicks, and is the film that finally won The Duke an Academy Award, the film is far from perfect.
As the story of a young 14-year old girl seeking revenge for the senseless murder of her father in the 1870's, the 1969 True Grit is at heart a film probably released 10 years past its prime--which is ironic since the novel was released in 1968. The first half of the film, before the action moves out of the town and into Choctaw territory, feels long and drawn out. For a revenge tale, Henry Hathaway's direction is often too lite rendering some of the humor a tad more campy than probably intended. And although released during the height of the modern day Women's Movement, Mattie's dogged determination and intelligence is at times treated with the cinematic equivalent of a pat on the head.
It truly is John Wayne's performances as Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn that elevates True Grit into a minor classic. (Although I enjoyed Kim Darby's Mattie Ross to a degree, overall I think Hathaway did her a disservice. I couldn't help think that I was watching a Western version of Disney's 1977 live-action Candleshoe...and I while like Candleshoe, as a contrast with True Grit's underlying ruminations about justice and revenge, that's not a good thing).
How different is the Coen Brothers take on True Grit? For those who freakout about remakes, they may be elated--or disappointed, it's always hard to tell with those folks--to learn that a good 90 percent of the 2010 version is identical to it's progenitor.
As perusal for the Brothers, they've punched up the dialogue with colloquialisms and an idiosyncratic logic that exudes an impeccable sense of place and custom. Few characters use language to poke, prod and provoke each other as they can in a Coen Brother's film. Mattie potently and skillfully wields words with such proficiency, she capably handles men three times her senior and twice her size. They also pull off the neat trick of establishing both Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf's toughness, while simultaneously revealing that no amount of machismo--although LaBoeuf is clearly the more sensitive of the two--can hide when words have cut them deep.
The greatest, at times subtle, distinction in the two films lies in how the Coen's approached the story, namely adhering more closely to the novel and telling the story entirely from Mattie's point of view. It's a choice that makes all the difference as iconic scenes, such as when Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to leave Mattie behind and she defiantly crosses the river on horseback, achieve a level of resonance and power not found in the original. And to be fair, they play out much differently between the two films, however the disciplined focus on Mattie in the Coen's version, injects the scenes at the dugout and most of the third act with a taught tension that makes everything hum with energy.
For Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld they had a difficult task at hand, stepping into roles that have stood for four decades.
Bridges's Cogburn is more than a curmudgeon, he's an SOB who isn't above kicking kids, not once, not twice, but three times. It's a performance that's just plain fun to watch. Yet, the real praise should go to Steinfeld whose Mattie has a tenacity derived more from her intelligence and maturity than an innate stubbornness. It's a shame that since the 1970s, roles like this have become rarer and rarer for young actresses. Hopefully Steinfeld won't see her career stall as did for Darby.
As for Matt Damon it's a bit easier. Glen Cambell's turn at LaBeouf is serviceable at best. That's not to downplay what Damon does, because in partnership with the Coen's they've created a character who's dogged adherence to the life as a Texas Ranger and sincerity makes it easy to see the character featured in his own story**.
After three decades and fifteen films, there are elements you can expect in nearly every Coen project. Yet, here, their noted use of irony is essentially absent. As old school film fans, their love of classic Hollywood genres, especially of noir and screwball, is usually evident in every frame. And although this is a western, they rarely insert anything that yells "hey this is a Western, remember those." Some may argue the point, however, this is arguably the first played for straight Coen flick. As a result, there are moments in TRUE GRIT that are like seeing your Dad cry. You get flashes--especially in the last 15 minutes--of emotions rarely a part of the Coen Brothers playbook.
*We're looking at you Gawain MacSam aka Marlon Wayans.
**I'd even go far to say they've taken bits of the Dude from The Big Lebowski and amped up his more respectable virtues and intelligence.