Most people know True Grit as the 1969 movie by which John Wayne earned his only best actor Oscar, as Rooster Cogburn, a drunken, one-eyed U.S. marshal who agrees to lead a young woman into Indian territory to apprehend her father’s killer. This new movie by the Coen brothers, however, is being positioned as a “true” True Grit, closely adapted from the beloved 1968 cult novel by Charles Portis. The Coens play around with the events of the novel nearly as much as the original movie did and adorn some scenes with their trademark black humor, which tends to clash with the book’s Old West drollery. But their beautifully mounted and marvelously entertaining adaptation does manage to wrestle the story away at long last from Wayne—who made the character of Rooster a repository for his own legend. Driving the action now is the novel’s 14-year-old narrator and protagonist, Mattie Ross, a prim, obstinate, grandly judgmental girl from whom Portis drew much of his comedy.
Mattie’s appeal to women is particularly evident in the short afterward that novelist Donna Tartt (The Secret History) wrote for the book in 2004: her great-grandmother was the first in her family to read True Grit and fell so in love with it that she passed it along to her own daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter, each of whom embraced it as well. “A great part of True Grit‘s charm is in Mattie’s blasé view of frontier America,” Tartt observes. “Shootings, stabbings, and public hangings are recounted frankly and flatly, and often with rather less warmth than the political and personal opinions upon which Mattie digresses. . . . But this deadpan flatness serves a double purpose in the novel, for if Mattie is humorless, she is also completely lacking in qualities like pity and self-doubt, and her implacable stoniness—while very, very funny—is formidable too, in a manner reminiscent of old tintypes and cartes des visites of Confederate soldier boys.”
Back in 1968, when men were men and westerns were westerns, this girl-power element of True Grit must have completely escaped veteran producer Hal Wallis, who acquired the movie rights, and director Henry Hathaway, a studio old-timer who’d directed such lesser Wayne vehicles as North to Alaska and The Sons of Katie Elder. As Mattie they cast 21-year-old Kim Darby, who’d been acting in TV and movies for five years and was visibly a grown woman. From the beginning, when Mattie bids her father good-bye and then arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to collect his body and settle his affairs, Darby comes off as more emotional and girlishly sentimental than the steely teenager of the book. Mattie’s verbal jousting with Mr. LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell), a Texas Ranger who’s also tracking the killer, here has a doe-eyed, flirtatious edge, and when the landlady at the boardinghouse gives Mattie her father’s effects, she shuts herself in he room and sobs over his pocket watch.
The 1969 movie makes its priorities known when Mattie valiantly forges a river on her pony to avoid being ditched by Cogburn and LaBoeuf as they take off in pursuit of the killer, Tom Chaney, and Rooster—in a line created for Wayne—declares admiringly, “She reminds me of me.” Wayne loved the novel and saw in Rooster an opportunity to have some fun with his screen persona; unfortunately Hathaway wasn’t the type to rein in his star, and Wayne turns in a hammy, self-satisfied performance as the whisky-guzzling, tale-telling, death-dealing lawman. The Searchers or Red River or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon it’s not. But then, these were the last days of the classic Hollywood western, and True Grit is typical of the big, overlit, slackly edited cowboy pictures that had become the refuge of the old guard. Dennis Hopper, whose artistic clashes with Hathaway on the set of the 1958 western From Hell to Texas had become showbiz legend, has a small role in True Grit as a young squealer who gets stabbed to death. But he came to the project straight from his directing debut, Easy Rider, whose astonishing box office success would finally convince the big studios that the counterculture was for real.
The dynamic 70s cinema that would follow, sweeping away old bulls like Hathaway, lives on in American indies like the Coens, and their True Grit makes you realize how dark the western has grown in the past four decades, thematically and visually. Hathaway staged nearly all of the three travelers’ adventures in broad daylight, including two key action scenes that were nocturnal in the book: an interrogation of two men at a remote hovel, which explodes into violence, and an ill-fated ambush on a gang of desperadoes arriving at that same location on horseback. The Coens return these scenes to the nighttime setting Portis imagined, which is much more effective. Their vision of the Old West, beautifully realized by production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres, is grungier than anything John Wayne had to put up with. There’s a dread feeling of death that never managed to crack the shiny shell of the 1968 version: when Mattie goes to claim her father’s body, the Coens add a line in which the Irish undertaker invites her to pass the night in a casket, alongside three men who’ve been hanged that day.
But True Grit is also a great comic novel, and the Coens spend most of their movie balancing Portis’s language, which was impeccably crafted to capture the locutions of 1870s Arkansas, against their own more sinister sense of humor. One of the novel’s more memorable scenes is the public hanging Mattie observes when she arrives in Fort Smith: one by one, the three condemned men are allowed to address the crowd, the last a Native American who announces, “I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man.” In the movie the Indian barely gets two words out of his mouth before his white executioners pull the black hood over his head. The Coens have revised the book most radically by separating the pompous and talkative LaBoeuf from Mattie and Rooster for a long stretch and then reuniting them for the ambush scene, in which LaBoeuf gets dragged by a horse and—a little joke of the Coens’—nearly bites off his own tongue.
Matt Damon gives a wonderful performance as the self-glorifying Texas ranger, and Jeff Bridges deftly scales Rooster from movie mythdown to man; but the lynchpin of the new True Grit is 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, found at an open audition in Los Angeles. “The whole screenplay is centered around her,” Bridges points out in the movie’s press notes. “I was worried at first about Hailee because this is her first movie, but by the end of the first day of filming, I just said, ‘Oh, God, did we luck out with her.'” Her hair pulled back in tight pigtails—a stark contrast to the cute little moptop Darby wore—Steinfeld reclaims the hard, unforgiving edge that makes Mattie such a dimensional, and sometimes self-deluding, character in the book. Hathaway largely frittered away the scene in which Mattie marches into the office of a Fort Smith horse trader and bullies him into taking back the ponies her father had bought just before he was killed. The Coens go to town with this comic showdown, establishing what a tough customer Mattie is before Rooster even joins the narrative.
Steinfeld more than holds her own with the men in the cast, and her verbal jousting with LaBoeuf, who’s been tracking Chaney for the murder of a Texas senator and wants him to hang for that crime so he can collect his reward, is priceless. Yet her performance is layered enough to expose Mattie’s insecurity about her womanliness. “I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you,” LaBoeuf tells her at one point, “though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” The crack about being unattractive causes a shadow to pass over Mattie’s habitual stone face, but it doesn’t keep her down for an instant. “One would be as unpleasant as the other,” she shoots back.
Mattie’s true character doesn’t emerge until the very end of the story, after the conflict with Tom Chaney is resolved (and though I’ll keep mum on that, a spoiler alert might be in order anyway). In the John Wayne version of True Grit, there’s a sentimental scene in which Mattie tells Rooster she’s reserved a spot for him next to her in the family cemetery; the implication is that, in years to come, she’ll find a man just like him. The Coens’ movie preserves the more poignant denouement of Portis’s novel, in which the two characters are separated by fate and never meet again. A quarter century later, Mattie takes possession of Rooster’s body, but by then she’s grown into a successful banker and a confirmed spinster; one wonders if Rooster, having ultimately proved himself a fearless and devoted friend, has ruined Mattie for any other man. A final wide-screen frame of the grown Mattie, clad in funereal black and pacing away from Rooster’s grave into the vast horizon, captures the timeless appeal of True Grit: it is, despite all its violence and harsh feeling, a love story.