Review: True Grit: Opening Today

This review originally appeared on Capital New York.

The Coen Brothers have made careers out of taking straightforward stories in familiar genres and rendering them in subversive and sometimes shocking ways. With True Grit, they find a new way to shock: by being more faithful to the book than the original film version of True Grit ever was; by exalting the Western genre unapologetically; by not being ironic, not even a little bit.

True Grit, based on the novel by Charles Portis, is a story of unembarrassed sentiment, of courage and determination. It is also a coming-of-age tale, revolving around the spunky and efficient Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires the debauched U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to avenge her father’s death.

The first version of the film, made in 1969, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring the great John Wayne, was completely entertaining, and the Coen Brothers have striven for something similarly unpretentious. Their film, true to the Portis novel (in some sections word for word), is a prime example of letting the writing of the original source guide the overall style of the film.

Master filmmakers of the old school did that: they told the story, first and foremost. Here, the Coen Brothers very deliberately do not attempt to offer comment on the Western genre from a modern-day distance. The only distance in the remake (not present in the original film) is the use of a voiceover of the adult Mattie, looking back on the events from her childhood as a grown woman. This is actually how the novel is written, and it gives the story an elegiac ache vibrating through the memorable prose. It works. It works like hell. It helps the film stand on its own, separating itself from the indelible original.

Young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenager, whose father was killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired hand with a shady past and a black gunpowder scar on his cheek. Chaney has joined up with outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), and the Ned Pepper Gang is now hiding out in the Choctaw Nation, out of the jurisdiction of the local police.

Mattie, traveling to Fort Smith, briskly puts her dead father’s affairs in order, arranging for the body to be shipped back to her home town, and staying on to grill the police chief about what is being done to find and punish Tom Chaney. “My mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief,” she explains, in just one of the rich lines that this great script (by the Coen Brothers themselves, with a major nod to Charles Portis) has to offer. Mattie learns from the police chief that she needs a U.S. Marshall for the job, and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is mentioned as the most ruthless. Mattie then goes about convincing Cogburn that not only does he need to go after Tom Chaney, but he needs to take her with him.

Into the story enters the third main character, “Mr. LaBoeuf,” a Texas Ranger tracking Tom Chaney, due to Chaney’s murder of a state senator in Waco, Texas. LaBoeuf and Cogburn join forces, and the three set off into the wilds of the Choctaw Nation.

In the original, the character of Mr. LaBoeuf was played by popular singer and television personality Glen Campbell. Because of Campbell’s limitations as an actor the story of the rivalry between LaBoeuf and Cogburn didn’t quite come to life. You never for once believed John Wayne had met his match in the flashy cowboy with the jingling spurs. But here, LaBoeuf is played by Matt Damon, and what a fortunate piece of casting it is.

LaBoeuf, in his cowboy getup, is a comedic creature to the more starkly dressed Arkansas settlers (Mattie takes one look at him and refers to him as a “circus rider”), but he has been tracking Tom Chaney for so long he has a personal investment in the capture of his man. He is more of a kindred spirit to Mattie Ross than Rooster Cogburn, because Cogburn is frankly in it for the money.

Hailee Steinfeld has a couple of credits to her name but nothing significant. There was a massive casting call for the role, country-wide, with thousands of girls auditioning. The dialogue is daunting: archaic and formal, with almost no contractions (I didn’t keep count, but when there is a choice between “I’m” and “I am”, the characters here say “I am”). The language was the main stumbling block for the Coen Brothers in finding their girl. Mattie must speak as though this language comes naturally; if she was affected or precocious, the entire picture would sink. Steinfeld is terrific. She is solemn and stern throughout, with a couple of moments when she lets her guard down. The formal language comes easily to her, but, on a deeper level, it seems to be the survival instinct of a young woman surrounded by large foes, needing to stake out her territory. Her every gesture, her every word, says, “Do not underestimate me.”

She goes toe to toe with all the heavy-hitting actors here, and, very importantly, she is actually the age of the character in the book, whereas Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the original, was 20 years old, a significant difference. When LaBoeuf, in their first meeting, says to her ominously, “I was thinking before about stealing a kiss from you,” it comes across very differently if the girl in question is actually 14 years old. You never “warm up” to Mattie. You are not meant to. She is forbidding as a young child, and she is forbidding as the middle-aged spinster narrating the tale. This is right. The sentiment in the story, then, is honestly earned.

Josh Brolin, as the hunted Tom Chaney, doesn’t show up until the film is almost over, but the impression he makes is terrifying, not so much because he is violent (although he is), but because he is so shockingly dumb. (It is clear the other outlaws think he’s stupid as well. It is a very funny performance.) The casting of Brolin as Tom Chaney means you are never at ease when he is left alone with Mattie; Brolin brings with him the possibility that anything can happen. He is stupid, but not someone who can be easily dismissed. Stupid people can do a lot of damage. There is a reason Mr. LaBoeuf has been tracking him for so long, to no avail.

Rooster Cogburn, the self-described “old fat man” with an eyepatch, and a propensity for shooting first and lying under oath about it later, is a man fighting his demons and, by the looks of it, losing. He has a couple of wives in the rear view, one of whom said to him, “A love of decency does not abide in you” (to which he cracks, “A dee-vorced woman talkin’ about decency!”) Mattie charges into his life, rolls his cigarettes for him, and refuses to be pushed aside, despite his cranky command that she “go back to churnin’.” She says to him, at their first meeting, “They tell me you’re a man with true grit.” But Mattie is the only character in the film who ever says those actual words. Nobody else refers to Rooster Cogburn as having true grit. The Fort Smith policeman describes him as “a pitiless man, he loves to pull a cork.” But Mattie listens on another level, and she likes the sound of “pitiless”. This is the man to bring her father’s murderer to justice.

“True grit” is a poetic phrase as well as a deeply moral phrase. Rooster Cogburn has led a chaotic personal life, with multiple ex-wives and children he has abandoned. Do any of the people who know Rooster personally think that he has true grit? It is a strength of the film that this disconnect is merely hinted at, never confronted head-on.

By the time John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn, he was an institution in what he referred to as his “glorious industry”. He joked, when he won the Oscar in 1969 for True Grit, that he should have put the eyepatch on “35 years earlier,” an acknowledgement from Wayne of the unspoken rule that actors need to ham it up in order to win the gold statue. Wayne, as Cogburn, was able to express more with only one eye than most actors on the planet can express with two. The final moment of the film with Wayne on his horse, calling out to Mattie, “Well, come and see a fat man some time!” before galloping off, is an exhilarating moment in terms of the picture but also in the audience-identification aspect of the Wayne persona. Audiences wanted to see him do the John Wayne thing, in picture after picture, over a 50-year period, and he found it an honor to oblige. He understood what it was all about.

And so does Jeff Bridges, although his Rooster Cogburn is an entirely different creation, eyepatch or no. He does not come to the screen with the baggage John Wayne did; he is not a “persona actor,” he is a chameleon. Jeff Bridges has been doing great work for decades, with meticulous, diverse performances that surprise and thrill. His performance in Door in the Floor was the best piece of acting he has ever done, and towered above other more celebrated performances that year, but there has always been something about him that flies just slightly under the zeitgeist radar. He is a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man.

Here, as Rooster Cogburn, he does not soft-pedal the character’s drunkenness (an interesting counterpoint to Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart), or the more unsavory aspects of the man, like his unscrupulous behavior on the stand in the opening court scene. He looks bloated, with a red nose and greasy hair, and he walks as though his legs always remember the horse that should be beneath him. His voice is the unrestrained snarl of a pirate; he grunts and sneers and scowls all over the screen from the moment we hear his first line emerging from the privy: “The jakes is occupied!” It was a risk, that voice. Jeff Bridges takes big risks as an actor.

The shootout in the valley between the Ned Pepper Gang (four on one side) and Rooster Cogburn alone on the other side is replicated almost shot for shot from the original, even down to the high-speed close-up of Cogburn putting the reins between his teeth so he can shoot with both hands. It is a magnificent and exciting sequence in both versions, and is an example of the Coen Brothers understanding that if something “ain’t broke” then there is no need to fix it. It can’t be improved upon.

But there is one sequence where the Coen Brothers veer off, artistically, from the original, in the sequence when Rooster Cogburn drives a horse across the prairie because Mattie has been bitten by a deadly snake and will die if she does not get medical attention. When the horse collapses under them, Cogburn picks Mattie up in his arms, in the middle of the endless nighttime prairie, and staggers on, knowing he has miles to go to get to the nearest outpost.

In the original, most of this takes place in the daytime. The Coen Brothers turn the episode into a masterpiece of nighttime images, the galloping horse seen in stark black silhouette against the flat horizon, or charging along against the midnight blue sky, with a dizzying star panorama stretching around the two characters. The phenomenal score (by Carter Burwell) is urgent and pulsing, an emotional undertone to the blue, black and grey color palette.

The desperation of Cogburn’s quest, his willingness to ride a horse to its death in order to save a young girl (when the only moment of uninhibited kindness we have ever seen from the character is when he protects a horse from two children cruelly teasing it), is poignant and powerful, and eloquently rendered with almost no dialogue. All of the cinematic elements come together in this one magnificent sequence: music, acting, direction, sound and cinematography (by the brilliant Roger Deakins, who showed his aptitude for vast prairie spaces most recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Jeff Bridges’ one eye gleams maniacally as he carries that young girl in his arms across the prairie. He does not indulge in unnecessary emotion because there is not time. She must live.

What we see here is the Coen Brothers devoting themselves wholeheartedly, even solemnly, to translating Charles Portis’ book into film. In doing so, they end up with something bearing few of their usual hallmarks. True Grit is an old-fashioned movie. In this case, that is a very good thing.

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63 Responses to Review: True Grit: Opening Today

  1. Nick says:

    Best review this side of Roger Ebert…Brava!!!

    Hafta leave now, and more to say about it later, just wanted you to know I think it superb.

    …it gives the story an elegiac ache that vibrates through the memorable prose. It works. It works like hell. It helps this film stand on its own, separating itself from the indelible original.

    Excellently rendered, throughout.

    (I cannot wait to see this film!!!)

  2. sheila says:

    Nick – hey, thanks!

    I loved it (obviously) – and am very excited to talk about it with other people once they’ve seen it.

  3. Charles J. Sperling says:

    A great start to what I hope will prove to be a great gig.

    How interesting that the newspaper ads don’t list Hailee Steinfeld, even in a smaller font. It reminds me of the ad for the 1999 “Ideal Husband,” where you’d think that the title referred to Rupert Everett’s Lord Goring rather than to Jeremy Northam’s Sir Robert Chiltern, as Everett’s the one surrounded by Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Julianne Moore. No sign of Northam whatsoever!

    *Mad* did a satire of the original called “True Fat” (not to be confused with “True Chubby”), and there’s an exchange between the Wayne and Darby caricatures about LaBoeuf (who I think is called “LaBeef”) worth passing along:

    Wayne: What’s he doing here?

    Darby: Well, without him, who would sing the title song? You?

    It’s very hard for me to be fair to Matt Damon — residue of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” where he thought he was playing a Theodore Dreiser protagonist than a Patricia Highsmith one — but your comments certainly make me want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    (Henry Fonda sings to Jane Darwell in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Did Wayne ever sing in a movie?)

    “Works like hell” makes me think of Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus making dying an art that “feels real” and “feels like hell.” Lady L, like the cat, had nine times to die: I hope you have many more reviews than nine over at Capital New York.

    • sheila says:

      // Wayne: What’s he doing here?

      Darby: Well, without him, who would sing the title song? You? //


      Wayne may not have sung in any of his movies, but that didn’t stop him from singing in other venues. (That’s one of my favorite clips.)

      And Charles, I think your observation is quite interesting about Damon in Mr. Ripley, although I did like that performance a lot – but I think you’re onto something, and now I want to see it again. I’m a big Matt Damon fan. I think he’s just continuing to grow and expand – and he’s reaching an age now where he is really able to experiment a little bit, taking different kinds of roles. Not tied down to the Bourne franchise – not doing romantic “comedies” that are unworthy of him – I like his onscreen presence very much. His work here is very detailed: when something happens to him (an insult, a slight) – you see it land deep deep in his eyes. But he also highlights the sort of silliness of the man, showing her his Texas Ranger badge in a falsely-modest gesture that she sees right through – and his touchiness about his home state (or “country” as they call it). All of that is in place.

      His relationship to Mattie is so well done – from their opening meeting to the closing – they really go through a lot as their two characters. He is pissed she is along on the journey – but he slowly comes around. For a guy like that, it’s not easy to admit he has “misjudged” someone, so when it comes out of his mouth, it is strangely powerful.

      I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, once you see the film.

    • Carl says:

      In his pre Stagecoach days, Wayne was once billed as a singing cowboy–the singing was dubbed. He did sing a bit of “Redwing” in the Commancheros with that other vocal superstar, Lee Marvin. If memory serves, he also sang a line in his last movie, The Shootist. More unlikely than his singing was his dancing in the Fighting Seabees where he cuts loose in a rather stiff Jitterbug.

  4. Dan says:

    Lovely piece – can’t wait to see this film.

    Congrats on the new gig!

  5. Lisa says:

    Fort Smith is working their True Grit connection. You can read about it here:

    If you ever make a cross-country trip, I-40 runs right through Dardenelle, which is where Mattie says she’s from “Yell County, near Dardenelle.” It’s beautiful country.

  6. george says:

    Congratulations on the gig and on hitting a bullseye on the first shot. I had been preparing myself to dislike the movie and now cannot wait to see it.

  7. sheila says:

    Lisa – awesome, thanks so much for that link! Work that connection, people of Arkansas, work it!! I wondered about those locations. In the original it’s filmed in Colorado which is supposed to be Arkansas, which makes no sense (mountains in Arkansas?) but is, nonetheless, beautiful.

    • Lisa says:

      What we call “mountains,” people in Colorado would scoff at, but I’m still not comfortable driving that part of the state. But yeah, it’s hilly.

      • sheila says:

        I’m from a state that has zero mountains as well. We have a HILL that is our highest point. hahaha

        If you see the original film, it is so obviously Colorado. Doesn’t take away from the movie or anything. It’s just nice to see the flatness here in this remake – it really adds something to the atmosphere.

  8. sheila says:

    George – it’s pretty much a straight-up unapologetic Western, which is why it works. And why I liked it. Not sentimental (or overly so), but frankly emotional. Very good acting. The guy who plays the horse-trader almost walks away with the whole movie – AWESOME scene between him and Mattie early on (again, taken almost word for word from the original).

    Loved it.

    Damon is great.

    • Doc Horton says:

      Great writing, Sheila. I saw the movie a half hour after reading your piece. Loved it (movie and piece). Horse trader guy is Dakin Matthews. I saw him play Bottom on stage 30 plus years ago in San Jose. It was Shakespeare accompanied by the San Jose Symphony. He was also hilarious in an Alan Ayckbourne (sp?) thing I saw a year or two before the midsummer dream. His delivery of his last line in the scene with Maddie is very nicely done indeed.

      • sheila says:

        Yes – Dakin Matthews. What a scene!! I can SO see him as Bottom. His performance in True Grit is absolutely riotous, if you really watch all of his quirks – and how much he gives up as he bargains with her – very very funny stuff.

        I love when he says to her, wearily, “Are we trading again?”

        GREAT scene!

  9. sheila says:

    Dan – I really look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    I’m a big fan of the original, too, and loved the remake.

  10. sheila says:

    But I have to say: by getting a good actor to play LaBoeuf it really really helps the film. Glen Campbell is definitely the weak link in that original.

  11. brendan says:


  12. dg says:

    FYI everyone the original is on TCM tonight at 8 if you want to set the DVR…great writing Sheila and congrats on the gig…so far in my perusing I have not
    seen any negative reviews.

  13. sheila says:

    dg – I haven’t read any other reviews! Couldn’t while I was busy writing this one – so now I can peruse about and see what others are saying.

  14. tracey says:

    The movie is not out here in SD yet, but your review has just ramped my excitement to a whole new unbearable level!

    Fantastic job, Sheila. I’m so excited for you on this new gig. What a great fit. They’re lucky to have you.

    • sheila says:

      Tracey – “unbearably excited” – hahahahaha. I know, I felt the same way about it. Well, you can bide your time by watching the original until it comes out out there!

      Thanks for your nice words. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks!

  15. Phil P says:

    Congratulations on the writing gig Sheila. It’s a beautifully written review. It makes me curious to see the film. “In doing so, they end up with something that bears few, if any, of their usual hallmarks.” I’m glad of that because I don’t usually like their films.

  16. sheila says:

    Phil – I am a big fan of their work, although some of it has been uneven for me – some of it I totally click with, others leave me cold – but I appreciate unevenness, at least in some cases, since it means they actually seem to be challenging themselves. Here they play it real straight. They did so in No Country For Old Men, too, for the most part – and I think it’s powerful stuff.

    True Grit lacks the nihilistic darkness and helplessness of Cormac McCarthy’s universe. This is straight-out Hollywood entertainment, and I think it totally works. I love movies that are unembarrassed about what, essentially, they ARE.

    Look forward to hearing what you think!!

    • Phil P says:

      Well, since you asked….

      I just saw it and liked it very much. I still prefer the earlier one. That might change some day. You get used to a classic. Someday they might make a better version of the Maltese Falcon but I’d have to see it another fifty times before it displaced the Huston film in my affections. So I admit to some bias. But the new one is very good too.

      Comparing the two, given the similarity of the scripts based on the Portis novel, I find my enjoyment more affected by the difference between the actors than either the differences in the script or in the direction (not that they’re unimportant) so let me compare them.

      As far as the two principal roles I find it a draw. All four are great. My first impression was that Bridges disappeared more into the role, but that’s probably an illusion because he hasn’t made a zillion Westerns like John Wayne. I know you disagree with the canard that Wayne “always played himself.” Of course his Cogburn is not the same character he played in Fort Apache, Red River, The Searchers, etc. Perhaps Bridges is a little more “real” while Wayne embodies some elements of a stock comic character. But then it’s a more “Hollywood” movie.

      As for the third principal character, I know there are many who despise Glen Campbell in the earlier film but I never felt he was bad or dragged the movie down. What surpised me frankly was that Matt Damon was not hugely better. He seemed bland to me. Maybe it was the character that was bland.

      Now I’ll tell you what I really missed from the old version – the great character roles. Robert Duvall! Dennis Hopper! Strother Martin! And let’s not forget John Fiedler’s little cameo at the end as lawyer Daggett, which wasn’t even in the Coens’ version. Also I preferred Jeff Corey’s Tom Chaney to Brolin’s. His was a more comic, hapless character, always whining about his bad luck. Perhaps Brolin’s was more true to the book. But I found Corey’s character more memorable.

      So I guess it was the for these “minor” roles that I prefer the earlier film. But there are also a few other differences. The Coens’ film is said to be truer to the book, but a novel isn’t a film and total fidelity isn’t always an advantage. The epilogue where the middle-aged Matty goes looking for Cogburn might have been touching in the novel (which I haven’t read) but fell flat here and seemed anticlimactic. The sentimental ending of the earlier film worked better for me. Having LaBouef killed was a moving addition to the story. And going back to that Fiedler cameo, it was a delightful cap to the running joke about lawyer J. Noble Daggett.

      One thing I do have to acknowledge about the Coens film: the stunning cinematography. I also liked the scene with the man hanged from the tall tree and the guy with the bear skin. And there were other good touches. It certainly won’t be the last time I see the film.

  17. Phil P says:

    My comment about the Coens was a bit sweeping because I have liked some of their comedies like Intolerable Cruelty, the Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, although even there I find their humor sometimes overly broad and exaggerated. In their serious films I find a self-conscious stylized quality that I react negatively to. I do want to see the new True Grit though. I just saw Crazy Heart a few days ago and it would be fascinating to see Bridges in the John Wayne role.

  18. sheila says:

    Phil – it really is fascinating. I think he owns it. It’s HIS Rooster Cogburn.

  19. Dan says:

    I’m not a big fan of the original to be honest – I enjoy it but it’s far from being one of my favorite Wayne flicks. But I love westerns so I’m hoping to be more impressed with the Coen brothers version.

  20. sheila says:

    Dan – in many ways it’s an improvement. Like I mentioned, having a strong actor in the LaBoeuf role REALLY helps, and having a CHILD play the child-role is also a huge improvement. But if you’re familiar with the original – there really isn’t much else that has changed. The script is nearly identical (with a couple of changes – there isn’t the opening scene where we see Mattie sending her father off on his fateful journey – and there’s a “coda” that isn’t in the original – but to say more would be to spoil it!)

    I think this one packs a huge punch. I won’t be ashamed to admit that I cried at one point.

    Really excited to hear your thoughts on it.

    What is your favorite Wayne?

  21. Dan says:

    Hopefully I can comment on the film on my sad neglected blog.

    With the exception of Rio Bravo, my favorite Wayne films (can’t have just one) are what I think of as his ‘second tier’ films. I dig the iconic ones, from Stagecoach to True Grit, but the ones I keep returning to are:
    The Cowboys – for all the reasons you wrote.
    Big Jake – Duke’s last film with Maureen O’Hara. She is only in a few scenes at the beginning but her presence IMHO is absolutely necessary to sell the ending. My parents let me stay up late to see this one Chanel 56.
    The Sons of Katie Elder – Duke and Dino. Nuff said.
    Hondo – based on one of my favorite Louis L’Amour novels.
    Island in the Sky – a different kind of Wayne film.

  22. sheila says:

    Oh man, channel 56, you really brought me back.

  23. sheila says:

    The Cowboys just kills me, every time.

  24. sheila says:

    If you buy a copy, Dan, of The Cowboys – there are extensive special features, which I think you might find fascinating.

  25. Bruce Reid says:

    All due respect to Dakin Matthews, who’s terrific in the role of the stable owner, it’s such a magnificently drawn character (from lording it over Mattie to cursing her implacability in just two short scenes) that Strother Martin was probably the best thing about the Hathaway version.

    A great film I still need to process. I do agree with you that a better actor in the role of LaBoeuf doesn’t just improve his part, but the entire ensemble. A LaBoeuf with presence allows Cogburn to edge away from the center of the film, where trusting him becomes a trickier proposition, in ways Wayne’s exemplary (for both good and ill) performance never could. Which makes Mattie’s loyalty to this embodiment of “true grit” simultaneously more ominous and more naive even without the opening and closing hymn summoning up Mitchum’s preacher and Gish’s straight-backed protector from Night of the Hunter.

    Another congratulation on the new gig.

  26. sheila says:

    Bruce – I agree with you about the original, the bargaining scene is one of the best scenes in it. The scene is superbly written (from the book, to both versions – neither version mess with it much), and the bargaining is just fascinating and hilarious to watch. You watch this man who thinks he knows where he stands in life completely cave in submission to the young whippersnapper. Very funny scene. She is RELENTLESS.

    Big crowd-pleasing scene. I didn’t see the film in a packed theatre, I saw a screener by myself in my apartment – but I imagine that that scene would get a lot of laughs from the audience.

    I want to see it again, this time in a packed house!

  27. sheila says:

    And yes: somehow, when LaBoeuf emerges as the more stable man, the one who has his act together – Rooster Cogburn becomes a far more interesting character. It’s the contrast. And boy does Damon know how to deal with that language. They all do, but he has some of the most difficult language in the film. “You do not provide much sugar with your pronouncements.” I loved LOVED how he said that line.

    You’re torn as an audience. You want Cogburn to get his act together, so that we understand Mattie’s commitment to him … and there are moments when he is worthy of her opinion of him.

    I loved how they changed his monologue about his wives and kids in this version. In the original, Cogburn and Mattie were stationary, on the stakeout above the abandoned cabin in the valley. Cogburn opens up to Mattie, and it’s pretty much a long monologue – one of the longest in John Wayne’s career certainly. It’s very funny stuff (I love the line, “He must have broke 40 cup.” Not “cups”, but “cup”.) and touching, too.

    The Coen Brothers don’t highlight the monologue so obviously and instead have him rambling on to Mattie about his life and his romances in a couple of different shots of them riding their horses along. So one scene will fade out, and then as the other scene fades in, we hear Rooster, still talking, “So then my second wife …”

    It made me laugh. It made me feel a bit tender towards him. Like, he’s babbling on his entire life story to this young child – what on earth is she thinking? I don’t think she responds once. It’s funny – a good change, I think.

    Wayne performed the monologue beautifully – of course – but the film sort of “sets it up” as “Here Is The Big Monologue”, and the Coen Brothers take the edge off it. I think it works quite well.

  28. D. C. says:

    Actually, Wayne did sing once – albiet drunkenly. In McLintock, he comes home drunk one night singing, “…where is the Katie with her light red hair, sweet as the roses on the summer air. I’ll find her somewhere while the moon is high, and tell her that I love her and I’ll love her till I die!” Then he tosses his hat up on the weather vane and shouts “Katie! Katie McClintock! The master’s home!” One of my favorite scenes, among many.

    Awesome review, Sheila, and congrats on the new gig.

  29. alexandra says:

    I’m going to see this solely based on your review, Sheila. I can’t WAIT!

  30. sheila says:

    Alex (or should I say, Katie, you freakin’ lunatic), yes, go see it so we can talk about it!!! I bet Crisanne would flip over it, too.

  31. phil says:

    With writing like that you certainly belong at a place called ‘Capital.’
    (And, no, I don’t mean punishment).
    Looking forward to seeing it more now.
    And..[whispering]…pssst…please don’t tell me Glen Campbell has a cameo.[/whispering].

  32. Jimmy says:

    Very nice, Sheila. Looking forward to seeing the film. My wife caught it at a screening the other day. Enjoyed the hell out of it. I’m next.

    Adding my congrats to you on the new gig. And if I don’t catch you again, in the next day or two, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year.

  33. sheila says:

    Phil – ha! Nope, no sight of Glen Campbell, heavens be praised.

    Thanks for the compliment – look forward to hearing what you think!!

  34. Jake Cole says:

    Great piece as ever, Sheila. I just now got around to it because I already hype myself enough for Coen brothers movies and to start letting others feed it would be dangerous. I too was struck how straight they played it, but at the same time how much they still managed to say about the genre. Their penchant for undercutting their dramatic arcs doesn’t lead to the shaggy-dog brick walls of, say, The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man, but it allows them to emphasize, along with the framing narration, how meaningless the quest for revenge is. The 1969 film has a sense of closure and victory, but all you’re left with here is an empty feeling. I also love that most of the people are vicious cowards, especially Chaney, whom Mattie correctly pegs at the beginning but grows in our minds for the rest of the time until the sad truth is revealed.

    The nighttime cinematography is so striking for its spaciousness and its sense of emptiness, but I was drawn to those earthen and honeyed daylight shots, which made me think of McCabe & Mrs. Miller for all its drab tones — I can’t remember who said it, but I always laughed at the description of that film as “Altman’s ode to the color brown” even if I continue to herald the movie as a masterpiece. Both movies make the West (or the Pacific NW and Arkansas, I guess I should say) look encased in amber, well-preserved and strikingly until you chip away the dried sap and find something disgusting.

    I thought I would get a solid but minor Coen bros. film with this, but it’s challenged me as much as their finest work despite being more instantly enjoyable than even Lebowski.

  35. sheila says:

    Jake – Thanks for commenting. I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    I think those nighttime shots with stars and beauty were so striking because of the almost daguerrotype look of the rest of it. Greys and browns with stark black figures – That scene really stood out. The way the horse would loom into the foreground, almost like it was floating – and then the way it was seen in the far-off distance. Really poetic beautiful film-making – which seemed, ultimately, totally emotion-based.

    I am not sure that the quest for revenge is entirely meaningless in this version. I think it was quite meaningful for Mattie and Mr. LaBeouf. I think the distinction is made in the film in the difference between the revenge exacted by the State – (the brutal public hanging scene) – which seems pretty meaningless, as well as callous and a form of entertainment – and the kind of revenge Mattie is going for, which has a lot of meaning – at least for her. She wants to make sure that Chaney knows what it is he is being brought to justice for – although Cogburn thinks that shouldn’t matter. As long as the guy is brought in. But she doesn’t want him brought back to Texas, she wants him brought to the town where he killed her father.

    In a way, the revenge she gets is MORE meaningful – because it is completely personal – SHE did it – rather than have it be once-removed, like having Chaney returned to town and hung in the square.

    At least that’s what I took from it, now that I think about it.

  36. Jake Cole says:

    That’s valid, but look at the way the Coens structure the climax: she may get the visceral pleasure of pulling the trigger, but she cannot savor it even for a second. Not only does the blast knock her into a terrifying pit that obliterates any satisfaction, the other, shall we say to avoid too many spoilers, development undercuts a sense of victory. One could interpret the older Mattie’s spinster status as a byproduct of her ahead-of-her-time strength and her disability, but the cold look in her eyes at the end suggests that the personal satisfaction never came, and she does not even get the chance to relive the time when she felt she could remove the pain when her planned reunion goes south.

    What I think the Coens do beautifully in this movie, and what only now occurs to me (of course), is that they completely honor and empathize with the desire for closure, even of a violent kind, that Mattie, all of us, feel when we’ve been wronged in some way that cannot be undone by a mere apology and a somber condolence. But it ingeniously takes away the payoff even though it blatantly shows it. Whatever urge you might have had to stand and cheer — and for all my liberalism, I wanted Mattie to get her revenge, just as I so often feel for others — is instantly undermined. Besides, so much of the film was already a commentary on the sadism of the Old West, from its pretty damning portrait of Cogburn to the darker undercurrent running through even goofy and slightly amicable characters like that guy in the bear suit who seems friendly enough but hints that he’s sending Mattie and Cogburn to a hiding place so they might kill the person currently shacked up there.

    I did, however, laugh when Mattie first placed her dad above a state senator, a brief but scathing summary of the average American’s view of politicians. Then the quiver in her voice got to me, and the emotion broke through, her desire to see her father’s death atoned for a completely understandable hope that her family not get brushed aside as it already has been. I was not expecting that from the Coens, who haven’t really gone for any kind of emotional connection since O Brother, Where Art Thou? True Grit has almost as much to say about violence and moral reckoning as No Country for Old Men, albeit on a more intimate scale, but it just feels so much more tangible than that film’s masterful abstraction. Even after they injected some earnestness with their obtusely autobiographical A Serious Man, I never expected such a touching movie from them. That it’s also one of their most intelligent suggests that they’re still finding ways to push themselves. Damn, the more I talk about this movie the more I just keep kicking it up my list.

  37. sheila says:

    Jake – I definitely think there are ambivalences there – especially in the character of Rooster, but like Mattie says at one point (if I am remembering correctly): “Nothing is free in this life.” Not that she would have been prepared to pay such a high price – or maybe she was – she’s the real one with “true grit” here. I guess I felt like the revenge she wanted was of the “eye for an eye” variety, and what I appreciated about the film is that the Coen Brothers resisted the urge to dismiss it, or pooh-pooh it. They handled it pretty straight-up.

    Yes, there is a price to pay. Cogburn and LaBoeuf knew better than she what she might face out there – but she refused to be left behind. She paid a huge price. But I don’t think she felt sorry that she had gone after Chaney. (Maybe this is just because the novel is fresh in my mind as well.)

    I also love how Rooster is not really “redeemed” – at least not in the way you normally expect in movies. He isn’t really in the first one either – although the way it ends ends on a note of triumph, with the 62 year old Wayne (who only had one lung at that point) taking his horse sailing over the fence. But it’s not like he cleans up his act, or becomes an old softie, or decides to go be a good father to his abandoned children after his time with Mattie … You know, he’s an old dog, this was his last gasp, and he DID redeem himself in many ways … and the fact that he would reach out to her, years later, and invite her to come see him in the circus show, shows that he did not forget. I found that moving.


    Here’s an interesting thing, – something I noticed when I watched the two films back to back: In the first one, there are a couple of hints after the snakebite that all will not be well with Mattie. The doctor says something like, “I don’t think she realizes how sick she is …” to Rooster, and there are a couple of other clues. Then, there is the scene in the graveyard, when Mattie asks Rooster if he would please be buried beside her one day. And Rooster is a bit confused and says, “But those plots should be reserved for your family – your husband one day, your kids …” and Mattie doesn’t really respond to that (in the first version). It’s like she knows that that kind of life is not for her. And then, that impression is wiped away by the glory of seeing JohnWayne leap the fence.

    But still: I found it a vaguely uneasy ending when I first saw it. I hadn’t read the book (this was years ago) – thinking – “She’s gonna die, I bet. She knows it. She feels it.” The film doesn’t come down either way, and chose to end it in a shot glorying John Wayne. But I didn’t feel quite right in my mind about her prospects.

    She’s 14 years old and she’s picking out cemetery plots? She senses something.

    Now to the remake: I think you’re right, that the experience she had – first of her father being murdered, and then of her journey into the unknown, and experiencing all those horrible things – have probably hardened her, changed her forever. Point of no return. Or maybe afterwards she was always looking for a man like Cogburn or LaBoeuf as a mate, and everyone else disappointed. They didn’t have true grit. Maybe she knew, as a young child, that she would always be alone.

    I did like the ending of the remake, with its elegiac nostalgic voiceover, and the image of her bringing Cogburn’s body back to her own plot. It somehow dovetailed with the original in a really nice way. They worked together, at least in my viewing of it – and that is a very rare thing indeed with remakes, don’t you think? Often a remake seems to want to cancel out the memory of the original, or “comment’ on it, or try to put a spin on it – This didn’t really do that. But there were elements of it that were way DEEPER than the original, because it stuck to the book.

  38. sheila says:

    Just read Bill’s post, and loved it. He’s much more familiar with the book than I am, but I liked how he went into the book vs. film thing, as well as a comparison between the two movies.

  39. Lisa says:

    I drug Danny, kicking and screaming, to see it Christmas Day.

    HE is the John Wayne fan in this household (my favorite JW movie is McLintock!, and that’s only because of Maureen O’Hara) (and I effin’ HATE “The Searchers,” with its racist overtones and racists brown-face and racist racist racist hate hate hate) and he loves the original True Grit and hates change, so I figured he’d be all nit-picky and hate it.

    He LOVED it. He said it was not worse, not better, just different. Two different movies, he said. It stood on its own. And I agreed. We both REALLY liked it.

  40. Lisa says:

    Oh, and the little Arkansas digs at the Texas Rangers? Those got a HUGE laugh from the audience. So true, still to this day. (We hate Texas.)

    Also, Mattie and her pa and Little Frank went camping “up on the Petit Jean,” which is pretty much the biggest mountain around those parts, and quite a trip from Yell County just to go coon hunting. About 20 miles at the very least, depending on where in Yell County they’re from. So it was more than just one night of camping. (And it’s pronounced just like she pronounced it, “Petty Jeen.”)

    That’s the other thing: the accents. It’s so hard for Hollywood to get an Arkansas southern accent right. It’s not Texan, it’s not Alabama/Georgia, and it’s certainly not the Carolinas. The actress who played the owner of the boarding house was SPOT ON. Bridges? Not so much. He sounded like he was imitating Billy Bob Thornton from Sling Blade.

  41. sheila says:

    Lisa – yay, a regional review!! Love it! I love your description of the audience laughing at the whole Texas/Arkansas thing. So funny!!

    Oh my God, I loved that boarding house lady. I wonder if she was a local actress? I loved when Mattie babbled some Bible verse at her – “I feel like Ezekiel”- and there’s a brief pause, and the boarding house lady, who doesn’t really get it, says, “God bless you.” Very funny moment!

    Accents are tough. You will never please the locals, and accents should be good enough to pass – but you can’t worry about pleasing the locals. I have rarely been happy with any Boston accent onscreen (although Jeremy Renner in The Town comes close) – it’s one of the toughest accents to crack, and the locals are incredibly proprietary about it. It can almost ruin a movie if you hear a bad one!

    I remember when I did Picnic which takes place in Kansas, we had extensive dialogue coaching for it – and we all kept tipping into the deep South, and we had to keep being brought back to the hard “rs” of that region, which is very very specific.

    // its racist overtones and racists brown-face and racist racist racist hate hate hate // For real? There was a lot of racism back then. Myths are fine, but much of myth-making is very unfair. It was genocide. Can’t see any sense in arguing THAT. It’s a fact. Maybe you don’t like the movie itself, but that response seems a bit strange.

    I personally love The Searchers. Powerful acting, some of John Wayne’s best work – certainly some of John Ford’s best work – and an ending that always knocks the breath out of me.

    Very glad to hear you both liked it, and that the John Wayne fan of the household approved. I agree: two different movies, with very different feels. I really enjoy both.

    I am dying to go see True Grit in a packed movie house – maybe this week.

    • Lisa says:

      I don’t know. I haven’t seen The Searchers but that one time, and when John Wayne was going to KILL Natalie Wood because she’d rather live as an Indian (even though I know she changed her mind at the end), I was all, “Ew.” And the makeup? Double ew. It just. . .sat wrong with me. Maybe it was because JOHN WAYNE was being the racist, I don’t know. He’s supposed to be, you know, JOHN WAYNE.

      Danny just jogged my memory by saying, “you also like Fort Apache,” and I do, but only because Shirley Temple’s character was named Philadelphia Thursday, which is like THE most awesome character name ever.

      • sheila says:

        I think The Searchers is really meant to stir you up, and mess with your expectations about the John Wayne persona – and also make you feel “Ew”. Know what I mean? I think they really WANTED you to feel that way. It’s not a heroic story. It’s pretty brutal.

        And oh God, that is so awesome about the boarding house lady. First of all: HER NAME. It’s like she’s actually from the 19th century! good for her! She was terrific, just terrific. And much better than the vaguely floozy flirtatious younger actress in the original movie. That’s so cool! I love that you picked out her accent as “just right”. Awesome.

  42. Lisa says:

    Oh, and I Googled the actress playing the boarding house lady, and no wonder she got the accent right! That’s awesome.

  43. sheila says:

    I’m watching the local interview with her now – the video on the side of that link. Yay!

  44. sheila says:

    I’m telling you, that moment where says, automatically, “God bless you” to Mattie’s comment about feeling like Ezekiel – I’ve seen it twice, and I laugh every time. She has no idea what Mattie is talking about, but it’s Biblical, so she says, “God bless you.” It’s hilarious.

  45. DBW says:

    I FINALLY saw this last night with my son. I really liked it a lot. I was struck how it was both very different from the first movie, and really not so different in many ways. Much of the dialog, being taken from the book, was word-for-word the same. As you noted, the character of LaBoeuf is so much better in this version, and adds another needed layer of depth to the movie. Anbd this Mattie is far superior to Kim Darby. As you know, I could talk for hours about this, but I want to focus on one thing that is really sticking with me. As you and Jake Cole discuss above, I was quite struck how unfulfilling the end seemed to me as a first reaction. I expected a “payoff” and was pointedly denied one–for the most part. My 15-year-old son’s first comment was, “I was so disappointed when Rooster had died when she went to see him.” We talked about it all the way home. Why do you think they did that? What were the Coen brothers trying to say? And so on. I still haven’t come to a final conclusion about it, but I think you and Jake are on to something about the nature of revenge–personal vs. state-inflicted, and the fleeting nature of revenge, or even the fleeting nature of our “victories” we so ardently seek, but find lacking when they are achieved. Although, I was quite bothered initially because I so wanted the “sweet” ending, I think this film will endure longer, and ultimately be more meaningful to people because it didn’t tie up the whole thing with a pretty blue ribbon. When you think about the characters of Rooster Cogburn as Bridges played him(and Oh, how much I liked the performance) and Mattie, those characters(particularly Cogburn) don’t really fit the pretty ending. He was a loose cannon, with a limited depth of connection(not that he didn’t have depth to him), and it wouldn’t be true to the character to have the movie end as most of us viewers would like. It’s enough for both Mattie and Rooster that she has his body brought back to her family plot. And, now, as I am still thinking about this, I like that Mattie doesn’t know what happened to LaBoeuf, and that Rooster was dead when she went to see him. I’m starting to see that as the only CORRECT ending. It’s got me thinking. My wife couldn’t go with us, so I will get to see it again with her this weekend. Already looking forward to it, and it’s almost unheard of for me to go see the same movie twice in the theatre.

  46. Carl says:

    I think when comparing the two movies, we must not forget the time span between the two. Over forty years separate the movies! I remember distinctly how I jumped in my seat in the scene where Moon (Dennis Hopper) ends up losing his fingers. I had certainly not see anything like that before. Even Wayne, true to the novel, screaming “Fill your hand you son of a bitch” was a far departure from normal fare. (For years, in a most bone headed way, that scene was censored for t.v. showings).
    We have seen much in the forty years between the first and second versions of True Grit; however, it may be that the first movie with its juxtaposition of good humor and violence was more on the cutting edge for its time than today’s “grittier” version is for its time.

  47. sheila says:

    Carl – relax. We all both love both films. Nobody’s arguing with you here.

  48. sheila says:

    DBW – I am so pathetic but I have been DYING to hear from you! Thank you for coming here to share your thoughts. I loved your perspective – so similar to mine, as a lover of John Wayne, and someone who has seen the original and loved it many times.

    // Although, I was quite bothered initially because I so wanted the “sweet” ending, I think this film will endure longer, and ultimately be more meaningful to people because it didn’t tie up the whole thing with a pretty blue ribbon. //

    I know. Yes. That is just right.

    The hint of the modern ending is there in the original ending – with the uneasy feeling given that Mattie is not going to be “all right” (“That girl is sicker than she knows”) – but we are somehow left “off the hook” with the triumphant ending – that is TOTALLY satisfying. Wayne, with one damn lung, jumping a horse over a fence. I mean, that is totally FOR the audience who loved him. And that is reason enough to do anything, if you have put in your time building up a persona as he did.

    But I loved the ending of this one, too. How about her put-down of the dude at the rodeo/circus show? “Keep your seat, trash.” Holy shit, was that satisfying. Rooster would have been proud. Remember the look on his face (Bridges’ – and actually Wayne’s too) – when he watched her swim that horse across the river. It was that moment for him: Okay, she’s okay, she can ride with us, kids’ got guts.

    Ambivalence is part of being an adult. So is complexity. I think it comes down to the knowledge that life is not “either/or” but “both/and”. Rooster is unscrupulous AND he is a life-saver and a hero. Ned Pepper is an outlaw AND he is the kind of person who can recognize Mattie for who she really is. (I loved their scene by the fire).

    I appreciate movies that acknowledge that ambivalence, ambiguity and complexity.

    That hanging-scene was so hollow and so … awful. The Indian guy not even allowed his last words. brilliant. And yet, the ceremony of it, brutal as it was, was what Mattie wanted. She wanted him there, in that square, in front of people who knew her father – so that Tom Chaney would fully understand what it was he was being hanged for.

    If you click on Jake Cole’s name, you can go to his site and read his review. Mattie’s revenge has cost her much. But perhaps, the way she was made as a person, she would never have had a happy normal life anyway. I loved that the film held out the possibility that someday she might run into Mr. LaBoeuf again.

    I love the original, but I felt much more bittersweet ACHE with the remake. I love that bittersweet ACHE, it’s one of the reasons I go to the movies and read books: It is the meaning of katharsis.

    DBW – any additional thoughts??

  49. Lisa says:

    //But I loved the ending of this one, too. How about her put-down of the dude at the rodeo/circus show? “Keep your seat, trash.” Holy shit, was that satisfying.//

    That was supposed to be Cole Younger, notorious bank robber and member of the James/Younger gang with Jesse James. I laughed out loud when she said that because OF COURSE Mattie would think a bank robber who is profiting off of his bank-robbing fame was trash. Of course she would. That was awesome.

  50. sheila says:

    Well, also, he didn’t stand up when a lady approached. Rude rude rude.

  51. Lisa says:

    Oh, you’re right — I was wrong, that was Frank James. Cole Younger was the one who stood up and introduced himself. Derr. Never mind. :)

  52. sheila says:

    He looked at her with contempt, like: “well, she’s got no arm. Don’t need to stand up for HER.”

    Trash indeed. That boy wasn’t raised right.

  53. DBW says:

    I apologize it has taken me so long to get to this further comment. I have been wanting to get back. I have had to work this week(won’t bore you with the details, but it’s been busy), AND I have had a house full of relatives–which is great, but I couldn’t exactly excuse myself at night, and go “get on the Internet.” Anyway, here goes, and I will be rambling. First of all, I just went to Jake Cole’s review, and I have to admit that I’m disappointed I’m not the only one who saw comparisons to McCabe & Mrs. Miller–one of my favorites. Here I was thinking I had some particular and new insight, and Jake beat me to it. While the styles are definitely different, there are some similarities–both films treat their subjects more honestly, and stripped of the iconic trappings of the typical “Western.” The violence is abrupt and mostly senseless, right and wrong is blurred and not closely governed, and the results of the characters’ efforts are ultimately unrewarding and empty. One thing that really surprised me about Jake’s comments was his reference to the racism inherent in Cogburn’s kicking the Indians off the porch. I was one of those who laughed in the theater because I saw it as his anger over their torturing the horse/donkey. Now, I’m not so sure that Jake isn’t right. He notes that Cogburn kicks one of the kids again when he came back out. I am going to be seeing the movie again this weekend, and I am eager to see that scene. I may be seeing things that aren’t in the movie, but, as I have thought about it, I think there are some quiet references to John Wayne and The Searchers in this movie, and Jake’s take on that scene would fit with that observation. Take for example the scene where Bridges stands outside the mine where he expects to find Ned Pepper–it’s shot from within the mine, and has Bridges darkly silhouetted in the open doorway. At the time, I wondered about that scene(Bridges fires his pistol, and yells for Pepper), but later I thought just maybe it’s a sly visual hint of the iconic end of The Searchers. Like this movie, The Searchers ends with no real payoff for Ethan’s long, long efforts. Yes, the girl is home, but he is left outside, not a part of the warm family scene inside. We have all seen movie after movie where we are left to feel happy about the character’s vigil, search, revenge, retribution, and so on. I really think the Coens are saying that, in real life, many of those human efforts end in unsatisfying ways–your Dad is still dead, you lost an arm, the human connections you made(with Cogburn and LaBoeuf)are fleeting, you end up alone and hardened–I guess that bad things can bring bad ends, and there isn’t always going to be a tough, but loving old fat man jumping the fence on his big horse(although you know I love that scene). Damn–I am forgetting about 10 things I wanted to talk about. I, too, thought the scene with Ned Pepper and Mattie was great–again, the blurring of traditional western black and white, good vs bad stereotypes. Pepper is the “bad guy,” but he’s not stupid, or needlessly violent with Mattie. More just matter-of-fact. Cogburn is the “good guy,” but he certainly has many unredeeming qualities. As I said earlier, I think this film has more depth to it(the Mattie and LaBoeuf characters are much, much more rich), Mattie’s “success” is even less of a victory than it was in the original, and the ending leaves the viewer wanting more(That reminds me–one thing I really wish is that the movie was about 15-20 minutes longer). I think all those things will end up meaning this version will prove much more satisfying for the thoughtful viewer. I’m anxious to see it again.

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