I continue to study the Western genre. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Western films. Listen here

I recently rewatched the newer adaptation of True Grit to re-assess my feelings about it. I hesitate to use the word “remake” because the Coen Brothers were adamant that this was a new version of the source material and that they did not even look at the John Wayne film for reference. When I first saw this film back in 2010, I actually hadn’t seen the Wayne/Hathaway adaptation and had no basis for comparison.

Before I get to the movie, I want to briefly address my feeling about the Coen’s work overall. Since The Big Lebowski (one of their great films), the duo has descended further and further into self-conscious filmmaking. Over the last two decades, the eccentricity and quirky elements of their work has seemed less natural. It’s become a put-on style and the returns of these films have been diminishing. I nearly despised The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and in general I don’t like the way they approach the Western genre.

That being said, I was relieved on the second viewing to find True Grit has few of those traits. The moments that it succeeds the least are when it feels most like a Coen Brothers movie. It is most successful when it plays everything straight and sincere. Many claimed that this movie focuses more on the Mattie Ross character, played here by Hailee Steinfeld, but in this viewer’s opinion, the Ross character is the strongest point of both movies. Whether played by Kim Darby or Steinfeld, she is the center of the film, not Cogburn. I do like Jeff Bridges’ take on the craggily marshal. Is it better than Wayne’s? It’s hard to compare but I will say that Bridges is a more realistic portrayal. He is one of the best actors in today’s American cinema and one of the few who could take on this part with gravitas.

In terms of casting, the weakest element of both films continues to be La Boeuf. Played terribly by Glen Campbell in the original, Matt Damon only slightly improves on the character. Damon, unlike Bridges, is an actor with very little range and effective in only certain roles. I think the Coens made a big mistake by placing two great actors (Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper) as the villains when either of them could have played a better La Boeuf. Peppe is quite good as Ned Pepper but he has always been such an excellent soldier-type, take Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers for instance. Brolin is wasted as Chaney. This is a classic example of miscasting. He’s a leading man and would have brought so much charisma to the other part.

You see, it’s almost impossible to talk about True Grit without comparing it to the first version regardless of what the Coens intended. I will say that the action and locations are effective here. And the movie reaches a few truly touching moments that I did not encounter while watching Wayne on screen. I am still very curious to see what Warren Oates did with the role in the TV movie.

Watched on Netflix