New Grit

I saw the new Coen brothers film, True Grit, on Friday, and figure that deserves a blog update.

Based on the novel by Charles Portis, the Coens are not the first to translate his western tale to the big screen. The narrative of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl out for revenge after the murder of her father, was previously filmed in 1969, by director Henry Hathaway. The first film version starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the hard-nosed, one-eyed U.S. Marshal, paid by Mattie to track her father’s killer. The role came fairly late in the Wayne’s career, and his world-weary performance earned him his one and only Oscar.

I have to admit, I’ve found myself at times struggling to understand the appeal of John Wayne. However, I thought he was magnificent as Rooster Cogburn, as his veteran status and larger-than-life persona really brought the character to life.

The Coens chose to pit the Dude against the Duke, by casting Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in their version of True Grit. Following in the footsteps of such an icon, in a role he made his own, is a daunting task for any actor, even one of Jeff Bridge’s calibre. Bridges has been smart enough to avoid trying to match Wayne’s star quality and give his version of the character a slightly different twist.

I thought Bridges was excellent, and his deliberately low-key performance allowed the film to focus more on Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. They are ably supported by Matt Damon, as an ineffectual Texas Ranger named LaBeouf. Damon plays his part with guster, and is a vast improvement on Glen Campbell, the country singer turned actor who played LaBeouf in the 1969 film.

The Coens claim they used the novel as their source material and did not allow themselves to be influenced by the other film version. This may or may not be true, but they have fairly effectively managed to brand True Grit a Coen brothers film. I derived some genuine pleasure from seeing how they added their own skilful touches to the scenes I was already familiar with.

Although I concede I may be allowing myself to be influencd by the earlier film version, I wasn’t convinced by the sombre ending. It didn’t gel with the rest of the film, which was essentially feelgood, and Mattie’s older self seemed at odds with her teenage persona.

My major gripe, however, is more basic. You see, I don’t understand why the Coens felt True Grit needed making again. They have turned in a very fine film, it’s hard to find fault with the way it’s made, but I don’t feel like they added much to what has gone before. Sure, I enjoyed seeing the way they adapted the story, but I think I would have have gotten more pleasure from seeing something fresher.

If they wanted to make a western, that’s great, I love westerns. I just can’t believe there there were no other western stories which made the grade.

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