Although John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film, the filmmakers claim that this movie is based much more on the book written by Charles Portis that appeared in serial form in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968 than it is on Wayne’s film (directed by Henry Hathaway).
Having seen both films, I couldn’t determine that much difference in the script or story line because they are virtually identical. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were using the first film as an outline to follow. The only differences, however, are substantial. This True Grit is much more comedic, the performances are better, the script is better, and so is the direction. The only difference that didn’t measure up was the ending, which is much different, and that’s to the film’s detriment.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires drunken Rooster Cogbrun (Jeff Bridges) to track down and capture Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the killer of her father. Making the contract more difficult for Rooster, she makes it a term of the deal that she must accompany him. On their way, they come across LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is also trying to find Chaney.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, this has a lot of comedic touches. One of the charms of the movie is that they disdain the use of contractions, á la Damon Runyon. This manner of speaking adds a lot to the enjoyment of the film.
Jeff Bridges has really come into his own as an actor. After winning the Oscar for Crazy Heart, he should be near the top of the list of nominees for this performance. Joining him is rookie Steinfeld, who was 12 when the movie was shot. Her performance, essential to the film, is virtually flawless. Much as I admire John Wayne, Bridges’ and Steinfeld’s performances are much more entertaining than Wayne’s and Kim Darby’s in 1969.
However, the advertising that lists Josh Brolin as the third lead with his name above the title, borders on fraud. I didn’t count them, but I doubt if Brolin is onscreen for more than three minutes, all in the last half hour. His character, the pursued Chaney, is a minor one at best, played by Jeff Corey, a character actor of not nearly the status of the Oscar-nominated Brolin, in the 1969 version.
Another criticism arises as a result of the amalgamation of Rooster, Mattie, and LaBouef that leads to a stunning production gaffe, one that shouldn’t occur in any film, much less one of this quality. Rooster and LaBoeuf try to leave Mattie behind, but she follows them and finds they have crossed a river into the wilderness of Indian Territory. Having no way across, she plunges in the river on her horse and they swim across. When she gets out of the river on the other side, she immediately confronts them. Despite just having crawled out of a raging river, in this scene she is completely and totally dry. If this wasn’t such a terrific movie, this scene would be laughable. Because the movie is so good, it’s just puzzling how this could have been allowed to happen. Although, to be fair, Hathaway made the same mistake in his version 41 years ago.
Kudos to cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Jess Gonchor, who created a wonderfully atmospheric environment for Rooster and Mattie to traverse in their pursuit of Chaney through Indian Territory. Although in 1878, the year in which the film takes place, that would have been the future state of Oklahoma, they wanted to show the coldness of the winter in which they were traveling, so most of the exterior locations were shot in New Mexico.
Despite the minor annoyances mentioned, this is one of the best of the year.