I was finally able to see the remake of True Grit via a Netflix DVD. I am glad that two of our more popular and well-regarded filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, turned their attention to the western. This has been a sadly overlooked movie genre of the last 30 years. It is strange, however, that they chose to remake a western that was already a classic, and deservedly so. Their version of True Grit does not greatly diverge from the John Wayne film of the late ’60s. In fact, much of the dialog is exactly the same — probably because it was plucked from the original source, Charles Portis’ book of the same name. There is a difference in tone, of course. The Wayne film is exuberant, where the Coen film is more solemn. But it does have its light moments, again because the book had these same touches of humor: the hard-bargaining 14-year-old girl, Maddie Ross, getting the better of all the grizzled men she comes across on her quest to find justice for her murdered father. And the quips of the half-soused Rooster Cogburn, the weathered U.S. Marshall Maddie hires to track the coward Dick…er, I mean, Tom Chenney.
Jeff Bridges does nice work filling in for the Duke. He’s not the larger-than-life presence Wayne was on-screen, but he makes us forget, at least for the run of the film, that he’s filling the boots of a legendary Hollywood star. Matt Damon takes on the Glen Campbell role of LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who is also on the trail of Tom Chenney. Campbell gave the character a little pop glamour, where Damon plays him pretty straight.
That leaves us with the young actress, Hailee Steinfeld, who takes on the role of Maddie. She’s far more believable as a 14-year-old than Kim Darby was (probably because that is, in fact, how old she was when making the film), though I’m not sure we were ever supposed to believe that Darby’s Maddie was that young. But Darby was a little more believable as a young-un who could get the better of all those frontier men. Both actresses are likeable and both convince you that hard men like Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf could come to respect and care about her welfare.
The ending of the Coen’s True Grit pretty much follows exactly the events of the book, whereas the Wayne version changes a few details to provide a little more satisfying conclusion. It essentially gives us John Wayne jumping his horse over a fence or a wall or something and riding off into the sunset. It ends with the possibility, even the promise, that Maddie’s life will be one of happiness. The new version, as with the book, shows us the middle-aged spinster Maddie, successful in business, but never to have had love or the excitement in her life of the days she spent hunting Tom Chenney.
The bottom line is that I enjoyed the film, even though I didn’t see much point in doing this remake. The western that, in my mind, begs to be remade is Shane. It’s a great story, but Alan Ladd just doesn’t pull off the title character. Now, Matt Damon as Shane might work just fine.