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The Conversations: True Grit

Jeff Bridges does meet the challenge, but he does so by kind of skirting around it.

True Grit
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today’s film culture that it’s disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn’t take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don’t get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and ‘50s. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.

This actually shouldn’t be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller’s Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens’ first actual western, but it’s such a natural fit for them because they’ve always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.

True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens’ film differs from Hathaway’s in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven’t read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What’s ultimately most striking about the Coens’ film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it’s just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.

True Grit

Jason Bellamy: It is indeed. Over and over, I find myself thinking of the Coens’ True Grit as a “wonderful little film”—that’s the label that keeps popping into my head—and I say “little” with fondness. As you say, the Coens aren’t out to reinvent the western. Nor are they out to emboss the western in gold, to treat every minor moment with epic splendor, akin to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a movie I like very much, by the way). Instead they take this rather modest western at face value, celebrating its inherent high points without feeling the need to make a boldface statement about the entire genre or about their abilities within it. I suspect one of the reasons this film is so humble is because the Coens have worked so consistently of late, churning out about a movie a year. If the heyday of the western—at least in terms of its popularity and ubiquity—can be traced back to a time when someone like John Ford would make two movies a year, I think there’s a natural correlation between the western and unfussiness, because directors such as Ford set our expectations for what a western should look like and because cinematic opulence has the potential to create tonal inconsistency within a genre typically dominated by crusty, relatively inelegant characters in harsh environments.

Speaking of which, let’s not beat around the tumbleweed any longer before discussing True Grit’s crusty and relatively inelegant main character, Rooster Cogburn. Like you, I haven’t read Portis’ novel, but I feel safe in assuming that the majority of the book’s fans have spent the past 40 years imagining Rooster in the form of his original onscreen depiction by John Wayne. The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially in this one. Rooster is one of Wayne’s most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975’s Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster Cogburn’s personality is so intertwined with Wayne’s iconic persona. Wayne’s detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that’s roughly accurate, it doesn’t mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. Rooster Cogburn is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne’s—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the “meanest” marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie to feel convincing and because John Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand.

When John Lee Hancock remade 1960’s The Alamo, I don’t think anyone worried about whether Billy Bob Thornton could escape the shadow of John Wayne when he donned the coonskin cap of Davy Crockett, because that role wasn’t inherently Wayne’s. But donning the eye patch of Rooster Cogburn is another story, and in approaching the Coens’ True Grit, it was impossible not to wonder what Jeff Bridges’s performance would look like, and whether it could create its own space, because for so many people Rooster Cogburn and John Wayne were (or maybe still are) inseparable. It’s a challenging position, to be sure. So, Ed, I’m curious what you think: Does Bridges meet the challenge?

True Grit

EH: In a word, yes, Bridges does meet the challenge, but he does so by kind of skirting around it. If there’s one thing about this True Grit that feels very different from its predecessor, it’s Rooster, even though the character retains the same uneasy mix of hard frontier moralist, amoral bounty hunter and incorrigible drunkard. Rooster is naturally larger than life, but in some ways Bridges seems to play him as someone smaller, more sunken into himself. Wayne’s performance as Rooster is big and bold, flirting with self-parody, balancing Wayne’s characteristic manly stoicism against touches of silly slapstick and absurdity. Wayne’s Rooster is capable of clumsily drawling out tongue-twisters like, “Mr. Rat, I have a writ here says you’re to stop eating Chin Lee’s cornmeal forthwith. Now it’s a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of the same,” an outrageously overwritten threat directed at an actual rat. It’s awkward, but it’s also hilarious, especially when he turns around and uses the rat as a roundabout justification for his habit of killing criminals outright rather than delivering them to justice in the courts. It’s impossible to imagine Bridges’s Rooster being that goofy, even though his performance is also defined by its ornate but often slurred language.

What Bridges brings to this role, I think, is introspection. It’s a showy performance by most standards, but compared to Wayne he seems positively naturalistic. His snarling is less theatrical, his diction more unpredictable. Bridges doesn’t have Wayne’s long history of playing this kind of character to draw on. Where Wayne was portraying what happens when one of his typical heroes ages and gets cranky, Bridges is simply inhabiting a character. Where Wayne’s Rooster always had the precise, slow drawl that’s unmistakably Wayne’s—even his drunkenness seemed considered and actorly—Bridges’s Rooster has a habit of mumbling and trailing off, slurring his words together into a gravelly soup where meanings are elusive. Bridges brings a bit of the Dude’s messiness to Rooster, and it makes Rooster seem more like a real, crumbling, crusty old coot than the self-conscious caricature that the Duke brought to the screen.

This difference is manifested in countless small touches throughout the film—check out the slack-jawed Lebowski-esque stare that Rooster fixes on Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) when she’s really pattering away—but it’s most apparent in the character’s late-in-the-film collapse and redemption. Wayne’s Rooster was slightly silly from the beginning, and he purposefully overplays such moments as his drunken fall from his horse. There’s a lot of emotion in Wayne’s Rooster, a lot of sadness, but it’s the sadness of seeing a screen icon struggling with aging, the sadness of seeing one of the cinema’s great tough guys dealing with the loss of his potency. This was a recurring theme in Wayne’s late roles, and it’s undeniably poignant. But in a way it prevents one from thinking of Rooster as a character, independent of his meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne. Bridges, by submerging himself in Rooster, allows the character’s physical and moral decay to be affecting not because of what it says about the actor, but for what it says about the character: his moving, rambling “I bow out” speech is devastating, a total repudiation of his dignity, and it’s all the more powerful for the quiet, forceful intensity that Bridges brings to it. It feels like a proud, strong man brought to the point where he’s capable of turning his back on everything he’s ever stood for. Wayne, playing Rooster as a cranky culmination of his own screen history, offers a touching and often funny elegy for his own career, but he doesn’t stare into the abyss the way Bridges’s Rooster does.

True Grit

JB: Before I dig into your analysis, I suppose it’s worth sharing how I came (and came back) to these films. In late childhood and early adolescence, I watched Hathaway’s True Grit three or four times, but I hadn’t seen it since, and so while watching the Coens’ film my recollection of Hathaway’s original was fuzzy at best. I remembered the general plot, the signature scenes in the meadow and snake pit, and the personalities of the main characters, but not much more. As the Coens’ film unfolded, much felt familiar but most of it felt new. Maybe twice I remembered a line of dialogue before it was delivered, but mostly I recognized them only after the fact. I bring this up to make it clear that my mental image of Rooster Cogburn wasn’t much more specific than what anyone who hadn’t seen the film would be likely to come up with if asked to imagine John Wayne in a cowboy hat and black eye patch. I had remembered that Rooster was feisty and that, in the parlance of the film, he liked to “pull a cork,” but that’s about it. So for me Jeff Bridges was working within a fairly blank slate. Yet somehow he failed to live up to my expectations.

And yet here’s what’s strange: After seeing the Coens’ film (twice), I went back to Hathaway’s and found that Wayne didn’t live up to my expectations either. It seems I must have been comparing Bridges, and then Wayne, with Wayne’s legendary aura, rather than to Wayne’s actual performance. In my memory, Rooster was a huge character, much like Wayne was a huge icon, but upon further review Rooster isn’t especially huge in either film. That isn’t to imply that Rooster doesn’t have presence or a personality. Of course he does. He’s an action hero in an eye patch, for crying out loud. But as much as both films establish through verbal testimony that Rooster has an unusually quick trigger finger and limited patience, I find that neither Wayne nor Bridges fashion a character anywhere near as ornery or fierce as Rooster’s reputation. In each case, Rooster’s cantankerousness seems playful, not off-putting, and his use of force seems appropriate, not extraordinary. I concede that might be part of the point: True Grit (especially in the Coens’ version) is about the deceptiveness of appearances and assumptions. Regardless, when I watched the Coens’ film I found that Bridges’s Rooster felt small. I think you’re correct that Wayne’s Rooster relies on the character’s “meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne,” and I agree that Bridges better conceals himself within the character (the beard helps), but I never got a great sense of who Bridges’s Rooster really is.

Subtitles might have helped. Bridges’s mumbling is so difficult to decipher that at some point I concluded that the Coens aren’t all that interested in anything that comes out of Rooster’s mouth. Bridges’s Rooster is easier to understand in some scenes than others, but that creates its own problem: his “accent” often changes. In the beginning of the film, particularly in the court scene, and near the end of the film, Bridges seems to be doing an impression of James Gammon doing an impression of Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl “Sling Blade” Childers: same cadence, same paralyzed lower lip. In other scenes, however, he sounds more like a groggy Wilford Brimley. I rarely get worked up over such inconsistencies, but Bridges’s vocal antics so dominate his performance that it’s a legitimate distraction. It’s as if Bridges was so determined to avoid sounding anything like Wayne that he made Rooster’s voice the focal point of his performance. So for me what personality Bridges’s Rooster does have is the result of the way the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins frame his expressive face in moments of silence, particularly in some of the film’s tremendous closeups, most notably in the scene in which Mattie rides Little Blackie across the river, and the scene in which Rooster sizes up the bear man, and the scene in which Rooster shoots Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) in the dugout by the river. I can’t say I ever felt I was watching Bridges’s Rooster “stare into the abyss.” But even though I think Bridges’s uneven performance is the film’s weak point, I do enjoy all the moments when the Coens allow us to stare into Rooster’s face.

True Grit

EH: It’s interesting that you say that Rooster isn’t a “huge” character, that he doesn’t live up to expectations. That’s a major point of both films, no? Rooster is larger than life, but he’s decidedly not larger than life in the ways we’d expect. In both films—but even more forcefully in the Coens’ version—the film builds Rooster up only to tear him down, then perhaps build him up again as he belatedly redeems his tough-guy image. Before we ever meet Rooster, we hear how nasty he is, how mean and unforgiving, how tenacious. And then we (and Mattie) meet him, and he turns out to be an unstable, unreliable drunk who’s constantly sleeping off hangovers and can barely talk at times. Rooster is meant to be a disappointment. He was perhaps once a really great man, or at least a really effective killer, but now he’s a drunken mess who lives in a filthy room behind a store, and who occasionally still drags himself out of bed to go kill criminals for money. There’s even an implication—again, developed more thoroughly by the Coens, but present in both films—that it’s because of Rooster’s moral degradation that he’s earned his reputation as a ruthless killer. In the courtroom scene in both films, it quickly becomes apparent that Rooster is lying about what happened on his latest mission, that rather than bravely facing down a gang of armed criminals he ambushed them during their dinner and killed most of them before they could make a move, likely without ever giving them a chance to surrender peacefully. This suggests that Rooster is something of a coward; he wanted to get the kills over with rather than risk a fair fight. The Coens later have Rooster admit that he was once a thief himself, and he’s unrepentant about it, which suggests that his turn to the law is a matter of going where the money is rather than a moral imperative.

That’s one fruitful departure from the Hathaway version, and it informs another. In both films, there’s a fascinating scene in which Rooster and LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell and Matt Damon in the 1969 and 2010 versions, respectively) talk about their experiences during the Civil War, and LaBoeuf insults Rooster’s outfit as “a bunch of thieves,” rather than a proper military unit. In Hathaway’s film, Rooster is able to beat down the accusation, largely through the strength of Wayne’s drawling charisma, which always made it difficult to imagine a Wayne character who didn’t abide by an old-fashioned code of honor and masculinity. The Coens, on the other hand, allow LaBoeuf’s accusation to stick, because Rooster later acknowledges his checkered past, and moreover because Bridges’s incarnation of the character has an air of moral turpitude much deeper than Wayne’s goofy antics.

That’s what I mean when I say that Bridges’s Rooster stares into the abyss of his own degradation. This is especially clear in the scene I already alluded to above, where Rooster gives up on their mission. That’s a pretty astonishing scene when you think about it: how often do you hear the ostensible hero of a picture like this declaring himself a failure and his mission hopeless? Whatever you think of Bridges’s performance in this film—and I for one like his graceless slurring and elevation of language and accent over meaning—he’s pretty amazing in that scene. It’s the nadir for Rooster, the moment when he’s as far as it’s possible to be from his reputation as a man with “grit.” Bridges is, to me anyway, very moving in that scene. Throughout the film, his rambling, difficult-to-understand discourse makes him a character set apart from others, so thoroughly collapsed into himself that he can barely communicate. “I bow out” is loud and clear, though, even as Rooster sinks deeper than ever into self-pity and isolation.

True Grit

JB: As disappointing as I find Bridges’s performance, I think we see his character and the film’s treatment of him mostly the same, though we might disagree a bit on the Coens’ intent. In my view, more than anything the Coens allow Rooster to be small so as to further enhance Mattie by comparison. Whereas Hathaway’s film is very much shared between Rooster and Mattie, right down to their final moment together, the Coens’ film is Mattie’s through and through. Despite his extensive screen time, Bridges’s Rooster is not much more than a supporting character, and I think that’s what surprised me: that he’s so easy to disregard, and that I didn’t feel the Coens demanded that I reconcile who Rooster is and what he stands for.

And that’s where the mumbling isn’t just a matter of taste. You said you’re fine with the “elevation of language and accent over meaning,” but there’s some pretty significant meaning that risks being overlooked in the Coens’ film. Take for example that courthouse scene: In Hathaway’s version, Rooster is caught being loose with the facts, but that only makes him seem charming. When Wayne’s Rooster suggests that hogs might have moved a body into the fire, it’s almost as if he’s mocking his prosecutor, as if he’s indeed the last person who should know how the corpses were positioned. But in the Coens’ film, Bridges’s Rooster is clearly on the defensive, and offers the hogs as an excuse because he can come up with nothing else. One gets the sense that Bridges’s Rooster really doesn’t remember how the shootout went down but that he knows it’s entirely plausible, in fact likely, that he shot someone in the back. At least, that’s the impression one gets if they can comprehend the dialogue. I recognize that it’s a little silly to complain about the indecipherability of the dialogue while all but quoting it, but I feel that by reducing the clarity of Rooster’s words the film also reduces Rooster—and not just metaphorically.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned the benefit of this approach: the less we focus on Rooster, the more we focus on Mattie. And if two months ago you’d told me that would be a recipe for success, I’d never have believed it. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, isn’t much more than a nagging tagalong who insists on accompanying Rooster almost out of an accountant’s need for completeness. She’s the catapult that launches the plot and gives it momentum, but not much more. In the Coens’ film, however, Mattie, as played by Hailee Steinfeld, is the film’s heart and soul. She’s along for the ride because, well, it’s her ride. If it were up to her, she’d go after Chaney alone. In these films, both Matties are determined to see Tom Chaney hanged, but only one of them seems truly focused on vengeance: Steinfeld’s. Am I right?

True Grit

EH: I’m not going to say no, because there’s no question that Steinfeld delivers a far better and richer performance than Darby did. It’s a remarkable performance, dominating and driving the film, both because Steinfeld is so amazing in the role and because there’s no Wayne-sized presence to distract from her centrality. She is a forceful, exceptional young girl, someone who seems old before her time. There’s something of an accountant in her, yes, and also a lawyer, and also the crotchety old maid she’ll later become. She pursues revenge against Chaney with a businesslike dedication that doesn’t quite disguise the passionate feelings motivating her to set off on this course. The only place we disagree, at least a little, is that I don’t really believe Mattie is lacking these same qualities in Hathaway’s film. The Coens’ film deepens and expands upon the characters and relationships of the original film, presumably by drawing more on the novel, but the whole emotional and thematic foundation of this story is more or less present already in Hathaway’s film. If the Coens are more successful in developing some of those currents, as I suspect we both think they are, it’s a matter of emphasis and subtle tonal shifts rather than major departures.

Unlike you, I saw the Hathaway film relatively recently before seeing the remake, and without knowing what the Coens would do with the character, I saw Mattie in that film essentially as you describe her: single-mindedly obsessed with vengeance, driven to see her father’s killer punished, unwilling to let anyone push her aside or turn her away from her purpose. She’s not a “nagging tagalong,” she’s a girl grieving for her father but, because she is who she is, unable to express that in any way other than this thirst for justice and revenge. She certainly doesn’t have the depth that Steinfeld and the Coens bring to Mattie, but the emotions and motivations of the later film are definitely there, sometimes in skeletal form, in the original film. The Coens’ True Grit simply digs deeper into all of these characters to uncover what’s there.

A key scene for me, again, is the pivotal one after Rooster’s capitulation, when LaBoeuf is preparing to leave and Mattie tries to convince him to continue helping her. It’s one of the film’s most emotional scenes, and there’s nothing remotely like it in Hathaway’s film. Mattie begs LaBoeuf, who she’d previously dismissed as a “rodeo clown,” to replace Rooster as her agent of vengeance, and though LaBoeuf is moved by her despair, he knows that the hunt is hopeless now. In this moment, these two unlikely companions form a surprising bond of mutual respect. “I misjudged you,” Mattie says, “I picked the wrong man,” and LaBoeuf admits that he had also misjudged her. They shake hands, a sign of respect that resolves the tension of the earlier, disturbing scene where LaBoeuf spanks Mattie for trying to join him and Rooster. If he once saw her as a nagging child who needs to be punished, he comes to respect her resolve and her ability to deal with the violence she’s seen. In Hathaway’s film, LaBoeuf mostly remains a punchline until the climax, when he redeems himself by sacrificing his life; it’s only in death that he can be taken seriously. In the Coens’ film, even though LaBoeuf spends the second half of the film speaking with a ludicrous lisp due to biting his tongue during a gun battle, he has more dignity than his counterpart in the earlier film, and his handshake with Mattie is a wonderful moment for both characters.

I think that’s the main difference between these two films. The 1969 True Grit is a strange, flawed western with some very raw emotions percolating below its glossy surface. The Coens, seeing that potential in the film and its source, homed in on those emotions, fleshing out the characters and their relationships. That, and Steinfeld’s performance, is what makes this film’s Mattie so compelling, and what makes their version of this story resonate on more levels than the Hathaway film.

True Grit

JB: Sure, but it’s not just a matter of resonance. Indeed, the Coens give Mattie the spotlight more than Hathaway did, but I’m not simply arguing that Steinfeld’s Mattie is deeper or more complex than Darby’s. I’m suggesting that in subtle but significant ways these Matties are quite a bit different from one another. As evidence, I’d like you to consider the following scenes: (1) the hanging in the town square; (2) Mattie’s request for a capable marshal; and (3) Mattie’s initial threat to kill Tom Chaney. Even though these scenes are largely similar in both films, even sharing dialogue in a few cases, it’s here that the Matties begin to diverge from one another. Let’s count the ways…

1) The Hanging: In the Coens’ film, Mattie happens upon the public execution and pushes her way into the crowd, wearing an expression of fascination. She’s not quite vengeful, but she’s far from squeamish. These men have committed crimes that are punishable by death, and therefore they will be hanged—to Mattie it’s as simple as that, and it’s obvious she sees the hanging as an exercise in justice. In Hathaway’s film, on the other hand, Mattie attends the public hanging not out of interest but out of a lack of anything better to do, tagging along with her servant. “I’m here,” she says, “I’ll see it.” Only she doesn’t like what she sees. When the bodies dangle, she’s shaken: “My goodness,” she says softly, nearly trembling as she turns to walk away. Whereas Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to be fantasizing about the next time she watches someone swinging in the gallows, Darby’s seems uncomfortable with the exercise.

2) The Request for a Capable Marshal: The dialogue in the scene in which Mattie inquires about the best marshal is similar from film to film, but the responses of the Matties are subtly yet significantly different. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie patiently listens to the description of all three marshals, weighs her options and makes her choice. Her selection of the “meanest” marshal, over one who is the best tracker and another who is the “straightest,” not the “best” as in the Coens’ film, doesn’t seem to be connected to vengefulness so much as youthful naïveté: if Rooster is mean, he must be good. Simple as that. In the Coens’ film, however, while Mattie again requests the “best” marshal, when given a recommendation for one she doesn’t take it. Why? Because once the word “meanest” is used in reference to Rooster, Mattie’s eyes grow wide, her face lights up and she stops listening. Steinfeld’s Mattie thinks she wants the best, until the word “meanest” triggers her taste for vengeance. And thus the latter Mattie’s bloodlust continues to reveal itself.

3) The Threat to Kill Chaney: In both films, Mattie demands to accompany Rooster, but the tone of that demand is different from movie to movie. In Hathaway’s film, when Mattie mentions that she’ll be carrying her father’s gun and that she’s “prepared to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so,” she seems most intent on goading Rooster into accepting the job—the old “if you can’t do it, I will” reverse-psychology trick. But in the Coens’ film, Mattie’s desire to take arms against Chaney seems to come from a darker place, as if she’s miffed that she might not get the chance to slay Chaney. While Darby’s Mattie inspires the sense that she would indeed pull the trigger if she had to, Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to want to pull the trigger, because she doesn’t just want Chaney dead, she wants to watch him die. When Bridges’s Rooster suggests that Chaney might already be dead somewhere in the wilderness, Mattie takes offense. “That would be a bitter disappointment,” she says.

So, in summation, do both Matties want Tom Chaney to hang for the murder of their father? Absolutely. But only one of them is desperate to watch Chaney bleed.

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EH: That’s a great breakdown of the differences in this character between the two films, although to quibble I’d say that your second example plays out pretty much the same in both films. What the other two examples come down to, I think, is the different attitudes about death evinced by these two films. In both films, death is central to the underlying themes. This is a revenge story, about a girl seeking the life of the man who killed her father, but both films go beyond that to examine attitudes about death, and especially Mattie’s attitude about death. Both films are about a girl who believes she’s strong and mature. She goes off with Rooster and LaBoeuf believing she’s fully prepared to kill her father’s murderer, but actually facing death, first at the hanging and then at the cabin where they meet Quincy and Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), puts her “grit” to the test. You’ve already described how the hanging plays out differently. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie watches the hanging not just because she happens to be there, but because, as someone who’s seeking a death sentence against Chaney, she feels she should be able to face this. But she finds that she’s not quite as steeled against death as she’d thought. In the Coens’ film, Mattie already has grit enough not to blink at this spectacle. The aftermath of the Quincy and Moon showdown is perhaps even more revealing in its differences.

In the original film, after Quincy and Moon die, Mattie forces Rooster to follow through on the promises he’d made to the dying Moon: to make sure that his body is buried, and to get word (and some possessions) to the dead criminal’s brother. Mattie doesn’t allow the bodies to be simply forgotten—by Rooster, or by the film. Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf bring the corpses of Quincy, Moon and some other outlaws to a nearby waystation, where the local lawman lifts the heads of the dead men one by one to identify them, looking each of them in the face. Many other films would have just moved on once the bad guys were dead, but death lingers in this film, it’s tangible and painful. It’s as though Hathaway is respecting the perspective of Mattie, who’s wise beyond her years but still manages to learn a great deal about death and dying over the course of this journey. She reacts to death, not with the casual shrug of Rooster—or indeed of her character in the Coens’ film—but with a real feeling for each life lost. Mattie is not sentimental. When she’s asked by the coroner if she wants to kiss her dead father, she says no, that his soul is already gone; she doesn’t believe that his cold body contains anything of his essence. But she still has respect for death, and for the body left behind when the spirit departs.

In the Coens’ film, Quincy and Moon die in pretty much the same way as they do in Hathaway’s version, but what happens afterward is very different. As in the earlier film, Mattie is upset that Rooster doesn’t plan to honor his promise and bury the dead men, but in this case she can’t convince Rooster to do it, and indeed she doesn’t really try very hard. Instead, the corpses are lined up as though sitting against the wall of the cabin, and as Rooster and Mattie ride away from the scene, the bodies are carefully positioned in the lower corner of the frame, subtly nagging at our vision and at Mattie.

This is a much more cynical vision of death, one that’s carried over into the scene where Mattie and Rooster come across the hanged man in the forest. This dead man is only important to them to the extent that he could be useful: Mattie wonders if it’s Tom Chaney, and Rooster just wants to know if it’s a friend or an enemy, someone he knows. Once they both realize it’s a stranger, the body becomes unimportant to them, and Rooster allows a passing Native American to take the body as a bargaining chip. Later we learn that the Native American’s trading was successful: he gave the body to an eccentric wandering doctor who wears a bear fur with the bear’s grinning head nearly covering his own face. When Mattie and Rooster encounter the doctor, he’s already pulled the dead man’s teeth, which is all he wants out of the corpse, so he offers to trade with them for the now-toothless body. One can see how the corpse will be passed around, gradually stripped of what’s valuable to various people who get a hold of it, the life that once inhabited that body meaning nothing to any of them. Where Hathaway’s film takes pains to emphasize a dignified, respectful approach to death, the Coens, perhaps unsurprisingly given their bleak worldview, treat death as a dark joke, the punchline of which is commodification and dismemberment.

True Grit

JB: I think you’re right. But while the Coens aren’t reverent about death and disfigurement, we should be careful not to imply that they’re entirely flippant about it. Because while the Coens have a reputation for dark humor, their true gift is their ability to let dark humor and genuine ghastliness (be it physical or emotional) coexist in the same frame. The best example of this, I’ve always thought, is the scene in Fargo when the two hired hoods show up at the Lundegaard residence to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean. We know that the men have no intention of hurting Jean, and further that they have nothing against her; it’s Jerry’s plan, and they’re just the muscle. But Jean has no clue that these masked men aren’t as cold-blooded as they appear, or that one of them (Steve Buscemi’s Carl) is, in the parlance of True Grit, a nincompoop. So Jean runs around her house screaming hysterically. And while the Coens create humor out of that scene, they don’t, in my opinion, overlook Jean’s fear. Her histrionics are amusing, but they’re also totally justified. The Coens urge us to laugh at the spectacle while also feeling sympathetic for the victim. And in True Grit we get something of the same: the guy in the bear outfit is quintessentially Coensian—dark and peculiar—but even amidst all that oddity it’s hard not to feel for the dead guy on the back of the horse, who went from being hanged in a tree, to being ungracefully cut down, to being sold for parts. Perhaps he had a daughter, too. Perhaps he had grit.

Having said that, it’s probably time we trade thoughts about what these films have to say about violence and revenge, given the films’ focus on that subject. In a series of thought-provoking posts at Icebox Movies, Adam Zanzie expressed a moral objection to both True Grit films (while also finding much to compliment), calling Hathaway’s film “a pro-capital punishment diatribe, a celebration of vigilante authoritarian tactics and a glorification of the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” and saying that the Coens’ film “is a complete rejection of the lessons of [Clint] Eastwood’s [Unforgiven],” which he argues had “so profoundly closed the door on ‘frontier justice’ by telling the sad truths about it.” Elaborating further, Zanzie argues that True Grit “crassly reverses everything that the Coens have ever said to us in their films about crime, violence and religion,” suggesting that the Coens have “taken a step backward and made a film stressing another one of those banal insights about how crime doesn’t pay, coupled with a divine message (strictly Judeo-Christian) about how God will hold us all accountable for our actions.” I have my own thoughts on these issues, but let me start us off by asking this question: Do you think Hathaway’s film and the Coens’ film have similar attitudes about violence and revenge, and if not, or if so, what are those attitudes?

True Grit

EH: I think the Coens’ film is more conflicted in its attitudes than the earlier film. Adam is right, I believe, that Hathaway’s film is largely uncritical of the death penalty. Hathaway never questions Mattie’s desire for revenge, and, as Adam points out, her adversary Chaney is such an underdeveloped caricature of pathetic evil that it’s hard to feel even a twinge of sympathy for his death. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a major problem—as you point out in that comment thread, it is after all a fair portrayal of the actual system of vigilante justice and eye-for-an-eye morality that ruled the Old West—but I agree that that’s the political/moral subtext of the film. The Coens don’t entirely repudiate that perspective, but they do critique and complicate it in some subtle ways. We’ve already discussed some of the scenes that complicate the film’s attitude about capital punishment: notably the hanged man who becomes an object in the barter system, and Rooster’s testimony about the men he’s killed, with the implication that he’s lying about the circumstances of the killings. Another important scene is the dark joke involving the last words of the three prisoners who Mattie sees hanged: the two white men get to speak at length before they’re killed, but the Native American is abruptly cut off before he’s able to say more than a couple of words. That’s a pretty pointed comment directed at the racial inequities of the justice system, particularly surrounding the death penalty, which in modern America has always been disproportionately applied to racial minorities.

Perhaps nowhere are these two films’ respective attitudes about revenge and justice more apparent than in the much-remarked-upon differences between their endings. Hathaway’s film ends with Rooster and Mattie by her father’s grave, talking about their own plans for where they’ll be laid to rest. There’s more than a note of sadness in this coda—Mattie, already precocious in so many ways, has now matured before her time into an acute awareness of mortality—but the film’s final moment is a triumphant gag by Rooster that seems, more than anything, like Wayne’s self-conscious assertion of his continued masculinity and vigor even in spite of his status as a “fat old man.” The Coens end their film on a very different note. There’s no hint of triumphalism in their glimpse into the future, revealing Mattie as an old spinster who’s still much like her young self, although her age puts her personality into a very different perspective; it’s harder to take her combative attitude and stubbornness from a grown woman than from a precocious kid. To me, this anticlimactic epilogue, in which Mattie seeks out Rooster only to find that he’s dead, suggests a very Coensian moral takeaway: that in the long run all actions are pointless, that all that death and suffering and loss ultimately meant very little, and changed nothing.

Now, the film isn’t entirely down on revenge: when I saw it, people were cheering and clapping enthusiastically in the theater when Chaney gets shot, and I don’t think they were missing the point. The film’s climax is undeniably exciting, but what does Mattie get for her revenge? As Rooster rides her away from the scene of the shootouts and killings, her gaze woozily drifts over each of the dead bodies lying in the field; so much death has resulted from her stubborn drive for revenge. Then she loses her beloved horse, and her arm, and when we see her as an adult she hardly seems at peace or contented. I never got the sense that the film was suggesting, as Adam says, that “God will hold us all accountable for our actions,” even though Mattie clearly does believe that. The moral universe of the film is more ambiguous. It suggests that death is universal, that some people deserve what they get and some don’t, that cruelty is everywhere and sometimes it’s answered with more cruelty. Probably the best example is the weird little scene where Rooster encounters a pair of kids tormenting a donkey, and he frees the animal, knocking the kids away from it with offhanded disdain. It’s maybe the “nicest” thing he does until the climax, but his good deed consists of kicking a couple of kids—and then, when he passes by them again, he kicks one of them a second time, not to save a defenseless animal but, seemingly, just for fun. That doesn’t seem to me like the kind of scene that would be included in a film that’s trying to praise a black-and-white view of “frontier justice.” In most of the Coens’ films, “crime doesn’t pay,” and that’s true here as well—but as in their other work, being on the side of good doesn’t pay especially well either, and neither does revenge or justice. As the opening voiceover of the brothers’ first feature Blood Simple says, as a prelude to a bloody string of murders and vendettas, “nothin’ comes with a guarantee.”

True Grit

JB: On a similar note, as we learn in the Coens’ True Grit, “There is nothing free but the grace of God.” That’s what Mattie says near the start of the film after observing, “You have to pay for everything, one way or another.” Those two lines, along with the scenes you cite above, go far to suggest that this latest film actually fits rather nicely within the Coens’ body of work. That we pay for things “one way or another” is a nearly perfect way to sum up what we’ve seen over the years from the Coens, in whose films some folks are shot down by gunmen, and others are done in by natural disasters, and still others are doomed by landscaping appliances. The Coens’ world is one in which things rarely come easily, and in which even the good guys rarely come away unscathed. (Even Fargo’s saintly Marge Gunderson has to pay a price—having her faith in mankind shattered, tainting her opinion about the world into which she’s about to bring a child.)

And so it is in True Grit. In the film’s opening act, Mattie notes that she is confident that she is “firm in the right,” and that “the author of all things watches over me,” and we have little reason to doubt her. The bartering scenes with Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) are chiefly designed to show Mattie’s smarts and grit, but they also underline her rightness in that whenever Mattie threatens to get her lawyer involved, Stonehill acquiesces to her demands. Meanwhile, Tom Chaney’s guilt is reinforced both by LaBoeuf’s determined pursuit of him across several states and by the fact that, after shooting Mattie’s father, Chaney fell in with an even more notorious criminal, Ned Pepper. On top of all that, the hanging scene at the start of the film demonstrates that capital punishment is an unexceptional reality of life in the Old West—spectacle enough to draw a crowd but routine enough that the judge watches comfortably from his rocking chair. Put all this together and there’s no doubting that Chaney is guilty and that Mattie is justified in wanting him to pay the price, which in that time and place happens to be death. But that doesn’t mean that Mattie won’t have her own price to pay for her revenge.

That’s why I think the Coens’ film reinforces the lessons of Unforgiven, rather than defies them. Let’s not forget that Unforgiven, too, ends with a rousing, cathartic massacre in which all the bad guys get what they deserve. Alas, in becoming the taker of lives, justified though his actions are, Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny loses his soul, and to a lesser extent that’s what happens to Mattie. She has her vengeance, but she gets bit by a snake, she loses her horse, she loses her arm and, twice in a sense, she loses Rooster, who might have otherwise filled the void left by her father (as happens in Hathaway’s optimistic conclusion). “Nothing is free” for Mattie, not even serving as executioner for a man who committed a crime that was, to recall LaBoeuf’s use of Latin, malum in se (wrong by nature), not just malum prohibitum (wrong only because society or law prohibits it). If even Mattie must pay a toll for vengeance, then certainly the Coens are reminding us yet again that no one is allowed to tiptoe through the raindrops without getting wet. Or perhaps the Coens could be suggesting that Mattie’s self-defense and otherwise justified killing of Chaney was malum in se, if not malum prohibitum.

On that note, the Coens’ film gives us room to debate exactly how much Mattie is punished and exactly what for. Just before the film ends we learn that Mattie never went on to marry, and depending on your perspective that nugget of information could be viewed as a testament to Mattie’s fierce independence or as another bit of comeuppance for her acts of vengeance. In the first of a few posts on the subject at Unmuzzled Thoughts, Kelli Marshall argued the latter, noting that Mattie, like so many female characters before her, is punished not just for killing Chaney but, according to a long, sad tradition, for “her independent and strong-willed ways.” That post led to a debate on Twitter with Craig Simpson and Matt Zoller Seitz, who argued that Mattie’s post-amputation fate is neither Hollywood-conventional (Mattie doesn’t run off and marry LaBoeuf) nor is it a form of reparation (Mattie remains single by choice, she says). But while Kelli conceded specific arguments, she wasn’t wholly convinced. In a second post, she noted that while “Mattie’s final voiceover tells the viewer that she never found love or married because she ’[never had time to fool with it],’ … what does the frame show us? Steeliness, resoluteness, unhappiness, disfigurement, the semblance of spinsterhood.” I think Kelli has a point. There’s no debating that the Coens’ film has a great fondness for Mattie, even in the end, as evidenced by the way she mouths off to the man who she deems disrespectful, but her countenance is one of someone who has spent her entire life in mourning. It’s as if in taking away Chaney’s life, she lost her soul. To quote Mattie regarding her father’s corpse, her spirit has long since flown.

True Grit

EH: That’s a good point, and it all comes down to the tone of the ending. As Kelli says, Mattie’s adult voiceover maintains its flinty resolve, but the final shot of the film, of Mattie walking off into the distance, twists the typical “ride into the sunset” ending by making it a lonely, desolate image. The coda is really interesting in general. It’s a reminder of the artificiality of endings in storytelling, and of the old cliché that a happy ending is often a premature ending. By leaping forward so many years into the future, this film undoes the “happy ending” of Mattie getting her revenge and Rooster rescuing her from the snake bite. It also underscores that Mattie’s quest for vengeance has been the defining event of her life: even decades later, she still seems haunted by what she’d seen and done, marked by it not only in her phantom limb, but in her whole manner.

I don’t think Mattie is being punished—by God? by the filmmakers?—for her independence or her refusal to be confined by expected gender roles. She’s simply been deeply affected by the events of her childhood. “Nothing is free” indeed, and one senses in this coda that Mattie has paid a very high price for her revenge, not because she’s a woman, but because such bloodshed and ugliness weigh heavily on a person, and especially on a child. It’s easy to forget, because of her composure and her strong will, that Mattie is only fourteen when she sets off to find Chaney, but every so often she reminds us, as when she tells Ned Pepper, with deceptive calm, how terrible it was to see Quincy and Moon die in front of her. She’s matter-of-fact about it, as she is about everything, but she’s also honest in admitting that she was affected, that beneath her assured exterior she’s being shaken and changed by the things she’s seen. Some critics have asserted that the adult Mattie of the epilogue seems very different from the girl who appears throughout the rest of the film, but I don’t think there’s such a profound disconnect between them. She has the same fiery demeanor, the same impatience with the disrespect or foolishness of others, the same determination. The main difference seems to be a subtle air of sadness lingering around her, an extra edge of bitterness in her voice when she tells off the man who doesn’t stand for her, a hint of regret that her life hasn’t added up to more. That’s understandable, though: the defining event of her life happened when she was fourteen, and in a sense it’s all downhill after that.

True Grit

JB: Absolutely. Frankly, I find it refreshing that the Coens are thoughtful enough about Mattie to show the toll of those years, rather than pretending foolishly that who we are at fourteen is who we are at forty. I think you’re right that the film suggests that Mattie’s experience with Rooster was the most significant time of her life—and how couldn’t it be? She lost her father, killed a man and then lost her arm. That’s quite a week. Still, the elder Mattie reminds us that there have been a lot of years in between. As you said, it’s easy to trace this Mattie back to her youth, but she’s not the same. How could she be?

While we’re on the subject of tone and endings, it’s time to discuss not just Mattie but the series of events that happen after Mattie gets fanged by a rattlesnake. In both the Coens’ film and Hathaway’s, we feel the urgency of Rooster’s rescue attempt, riding hard back toward civilization in a desperate attempt to save the older girl/young woman for whom he has developed a somewhat paternal fondness. But I assume you’ll agree with me that the tones of these sequences are quite different from film to film. In Hathaway’s version, it’s a heroic and touching race against time, with Rooster eventually commandeering a horse and buggy and speeding back toward civilization like a stockcar driver heading for the finish line. It’s a rousing sequence, an uplifting sequence, a triumphant sequence. In the Coens’ version, the urgency is still felt but the tone is bleaker. The sequence ends with Rooster carrying Mattie in his arms and shuffling over the rugged terrain, huffing and wheezing like Little Blackie before him. He saves Mattie, but he never quite crosses the finish line, instead dropping to his knees within 100 yards of Bagby’s store and firing a pistol into the air. “I’ve grown old,” he says, announcing the obvious. Whereas Wayne’s Rooster confirms his validity, Bridges’s Rooster seems to be awakening to the reality that it’s time for him to be put out to pasture. He isn’t the man he used to be, whatever that was. Time has gotten away from him.

True Grit

EH: I think that’s right. The final ride in the Coens’ True Grit is a bleak, stylized nightmare, as Rooster mercilessly drives Mattie’s horse Little Blackie through an eerie, blue-black night that feels like the landscape as seen through Mattie’s fevered, hazy perspective. The sequence recalls the Grimm fairy tale aesthetic of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, and the end of this ride, when Rooster staggers towards the cabin with Mattie in his arms, recalls an earlier John Wayne picture, the John Ford-directed 3 Godfathers. In that film, an outlaw finds redemption through rescuing a child, and he similarly staggers towards civilization on his last legs. As you say, the Coens make this scene about Rooster coming to terms with his age, but it is also—and this applies to Hathaway’s version as well—about his redemption. Rooster had already proved that he was still capable of grit on the battlefield, when he rides into the final showdown with a gun in each hand and his horse’s reins clamped between his teeth. The ride to rescue Mattie is about a different kind of redemption: after proving that he can still kill people, he proves that he can save as well as destroy, that he can do good, that he’s more than just the “meanest,” most ornery and relentless of man-hunters.

The comparison to 3 Godfathers also reminds me of one of my favorite metafictional moments in the Coens’ True Grit: their subtle homage to Ford’s most famous film, The Searchers. The final shot of that film is probably one of the most frequently quoted and referenced images in cinema, probably because it’s such a simple, iconic shot that is nevertheless freighted with meaning: the door, framed by black, looking out at Wayne’s Ethan Edwards as he walks away into the barren landscape. So many directors have paid homage to that shot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quoted with the irreverence of the Coens, who ironically tweak it by having Rooster loutishly interrupt the stately composition (with the mouth of a cave here replacing Ford’s door frame) by leaping into the center of the frame, firing off his gun and shouting. It’s such an interesting moment because it’d be easy to imagine a more straight-faced tribute to that composition with Rooster standing in for Ethan Edwards: like that other Wayne icon, Rooster is an ornery outsider who’s too uncouth for civilization. At the end of the film, Rooster, like Ethan, delivers a child back from the wilds, but he then returns to his position on the outside, as evidenced by Mattie’s attempts to locate him again many years later. Rooster, though, doesn’t walk sadly off into the distance as Ethan does: when he appears in that famous Searchers frame, he’s glaring at the camera, hollering and pointing his gun at the audience, announcing that he’s not the kind of antihero who goes quietly in the end.

True Grit

JB: Speaking of paying homage, one of the things I appreciate about the Coens’ film is that they demonstrate such respect for Hathaway’s original. The sight of John Wayne’s Rooster with reins in his teeth and guns in each hand, riding hard toward Ned Pepper’s gang for an outnumbered duel in a valley meadow is one of cinema’s classic images—the stuff of AFI clip reels. “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” is one of those lines that encodes on the brain via osmosis. Like Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda” line in On the Waterfront, you needn’t have actually seen the film to quote it and to feel its weight. The two best sequences in the Coens’ film, I believe, are Rooster’s ride through the night to save Mattie and Mattie’s determined crossing of the river with Little Blackie, but those aren’t the scenes that fans of True Grit came to see. We came to see Rooster put the reins in his teeth. That’s the signature moment of Hathaway’s film.

So how do the Coens handle it? Well, the shootouts themselves are something of a push. Hathaway’s film does a better job of stringing out the tension before the shootout to increase the drama of the gunfight. The scene opens with Lucky Ned and his gang emerging through some trees and stopping short. Then there’s a cut to a shot of Rooster, riding slowly out of trees at the other end of the meadow—his figure distant and small within the vast frame, yet still imposing. Then we get a terrific closeup of Duvall’s Lucky Ned, the camera tilted upward to capture the treetops and mountain behind him. Then we get a long shot of the meadow and the distant standoff: the bad guys on the left, the good guy on the right, setting the stage. From there, Hathaway mostly cuts back and forth between closeups of Rooster and Lucky Ned until the shooting begins. The pacing is superb. The staging is western-classic. The setting is spectacular. Here, in the prelude to the action, is where Hathaway’s film really shines.

In contrast, the standoff in the Coens’ film feels a bit rushed, as if it’s missing a few beats. But I absolutely adore how they get to this scene: Whereas Hathaway simply cuts from a shot of Mattie and LaBoeuf walking toward a view of the valley floor to a shot of Lucky Ned riding out of the trees, the Coens employ a crane shot that rises above LaBoeuf and Mattie as they turn to look down on the meadow below, much in the same way that Siskel and Ebert used to turn from their spot in the balcony toward the vast theater screen on At the Movies. This shot instantly emphasizes the proximity of LaBoeuf to Rooster, which isn’t incidental, but more significantly it acknowledges the cinematic significance of the scene that’s about to unfold. It’s as if the Coens are saying to the audience, “Yes, we know this is the scene you’ve been waiting for. It’s the scene we’ve been waiting for, too. So let’s all sit back and watch it unfold.”

What does unfold, for the most part, feels quite a bit like Hathaway’s film. I give the edge to the Coens in terms of their cutting of the action, and their treatment of the shot that kills Lucky Ned—capturing him from LaBoeuf’s distant view and creating a moment of uncertainty before Ned falls off his horse—but they don’t try to rewrite the scene in any significant way. They tip their cap to Hathaway’s interpretation and follow it rather closely. What’s most different about these scenes, as we’ve already implied, is the tone. In Hathaway’s version, Rooster redeems himself just by showing up. Only moments before, Mattie complains to Ned Pepper (of all people), “Rooster Cogburn is no good friend of mine. He’s a drunken, gabbing fool. He led me right into your hands, and now he’s left me with a gang of cutthroats. Is that what they call grit in Fort Smith? We call it something else in Yell County.” Thus, by taking on Lucky Ned, Rooster proves his grit—and if that wasn’t obvious, Mattie narrates the action: “No grit? Rooster Cogburn?” But in the Coens’ film, the shootout is less about Rooster than it is about the three collective heroes: Rooster taking on four armed men; LaBoeuf saving Rooster by gunning down Lucky Ned; and then, immediately after, Mattie killing Tom Chaney. In the Coens’ film, all of that runs together, redefining where the shootout starts and ends. In their film, Rooster doesn’t prove his grit with a gun—because we always believed he could use one well. He proves it by what happens next: carrying Mattie to safety.

True Grit

EH: Yes, and that brings us back to Adam Zanzie’s analysis of both of these films as violent revenge fantasies. In a subtle way, the climax of the Coens’ True Grit suggests that the real worth of Rooster Cogburn is not his status as what Adam calls a “’shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” but his compassion, his loyalty, his determination. Rooster is a killer, a mercenary and a drunk, but when it really matters he’s as effective without a gun as he is with one. The Coens’ film offers Rooster an honorable route into retirement, a role as a father figure that he pointedly does not take, choosing instead to join a travelling western revue of the kind that Robert Altman so poignantly and satirically examined in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Coens seldom go easy on their characters, and the missed connections and unresolved feelings lingering at the end of their True Grit are typical of the ambiguity and uncertainty of so many of their endings. Mattie isn’t quite punished for her violent, vengeful quest: she must simply go on living, dealing with the consequences of what she’s done and the kind of person she’s become.

The Coens achieve this more nuanced ending without entirely rejecting or upending Hathaway’s less complex film. As you say, the Coens leave many of Hathaway’s scenes virtually untouched in recreating them, tweaking the staging and editing in subtle ways but not reinventing the wheel when they’ve got a perfectly good, even iconic, action sequence to draw on. Hathaway’s film hints at some of the same issues stirred up by the Coens’ film—the fascination with death, the thin line between revenge and justice, the consequences of violence—but it’s a much lighter film in the end. Not only does it end with Wayne speaking through Rooster, asserting that he may be a “fat old man” but he can still jump a horse, but it draws liberally on the lineage of the John Wayne western. The central heroic trio can even be thought of as a variation on the cast of Howard Hawks’ legendary Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo cycle, with singer Glen Campbell taking on the fresh-faced Ricky Nelson role, Mattie filling the spot usually occupied by a Walter Brennan-type crotchety character actor, and Wayne himself playing both his own stoic lawman character and the Dean Martin/Robert Mitchum drunken sidekick. The villains are eccentric and memorable, too. That’s not really true of Chaney, who despite inspiring this revenge adventure winds up being almost incidental to it, a deliberately pathetic and disappointing anticlimax at the end of a long journey. (The Coens treat Chaney similarly, and even enhance the effect by not showing him at the beginning of the film, holding back his first appearance to intensify the disappointment.) But Hathaway at least makes Ned Pepper strangely charismatic, which is why it makes sense when Mattie confides her distaste for Rooster to him in the original film.

Those are the kinds of small differences that ultimately accumulate to make the Coens’ True Grit and Hathaway’s True Grit surprisingly different despite their surface similarities. One senses that the Wayne True Grit never takes itself entirely seriously, balancing the bloodlust and rage that drive the narrative with silly pratfalls and loopy dialogue, vacillating between gently mocking Wayne’s screen persona and redeeming it. This wavering tone has its charms, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the Coens’ True Grit is the superior film, that it does a better job of pulling everything together into a coherent whole. Hathaway’s film is, like many late Wayne westerns, more about John Wayne than anything else, and it’s interesting for that. The Coens’ film, on the other hand, is about Rooster, and especially about Mattie, about the desire for revenge and its consequences, about confronting death, about growing old and growing up.

True Grit

JB: I agree. Hathaway’s film is about revenge and consequences and about growing up and growing old, but mostly it’s about our affection for John Wayne. That’s not a putdown. In fact, it’s touching that Wayne gets to pay tribute to his distinguished career in an equally distinguished—if lighthearted and sometimes goofy—manner. In light of the too many movies in recent years in which aged Hollywood stars of one caliber or another try to pretend that nothing’s changed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (think: Sylvester Stallone) or simply fail to recapture the essence of what made them special in the first place (think: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal You’re Fucking With Me, Right? (sorry, Keith)), it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Hathaway’s True Grit works by playing to Wayne’s strengths. It was the right role at the right time.

On that note, credit the Coens for realizing that their True Grit couldn’t work in quite the same way—not unless Bridges played on his own image by going Full Dude, if you know what I mean. Whereas Hathaway’s film wins us over with nostalgia—and, to be fair, a pretty terrific final action setpiece that could have worked in any film—the Coens come at us from a different direction, offering a young actress we’ve never heard of and handing her the reins to carry in her teeth. This is Steinfeld’s film, and Mattie’s. Near the start of the movie there’s a terrific scene in which Mattie stuffs paper inside her father’s hat so that it doesn’t fall over her eyes, rolls up the sleeves of his coat to expose her hands and takes hold of his inelegant pistol, prepping for a gunfight like any western hero while underlining how far she is from actually being one. In that moment, Mattie is heading into a world that’s darker and more dangerous than she can comprehend, and Rooster is right to try to leave her behind. But when Mattie rides her horse into that river without a moment’s hesitation (“Go, Little Blackie!”) it becomes clear that this isn’t a swan song for a washed up hero so much as it is a celebration of a new one. Mattie is the one with true grit.

True Grit

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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