Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Comparative review: True Grit (1969) and True Grit (2010)

The Battle of True Grits
While I would have loved writing an epic comparative article about not only the 1969 and 2010 movies of the same name but also the original novel authored by Charles Portis, but I have yet to read his book. Therefore, today’s special edition review will be restricted to the two aforementioned films.

In essence, the story carrying both cinematic versions of True Grit concerns a time an place in American history when law and justice were both practiced and served in ways different than they are today. If a family member was murdered, then one went after the culprit with the ambition of not only capturing the villain, but also bringing him back to town to have him hanged. Bounty hunters and Marshal's could be hired for this sort of duty, which, by the why, was practiced frequently. In case of True Grit, it is 14 year old Mattie Ross who has been wronged. Her father, while on a business trip with lowlife employee Tom Chaney, is murdered by the latter. Chaney had tried to gamble in a card game at a saloon and, after believing his opponent had bested him by cheating, his thirst for revenge went awry once Ross senior tried to intervene, as Chaney shot the poor man and fled. Ross hires deputy Marshal Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a man known to be as vile as he effective is at catching (and killing) the nasty folk. A young, less experienced man joins the party as well, Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (pronounced in both films as ‘Le Beef’), who has been on the hunt for Tom Chaney ever since the man murdered a state senator and the senator’s dog. With LeBoeuf’s sense of duty, Cogburn’s sense of earning what he getting paid to do and Mattie’s borderline stubborn sense of justice, this trio of incompatible characters traverse the American countryside to find Tom Chaney, who has now partnered with the dangerous gang of outlaw Ned Pepper.

Plot development

Both cinematic translations ostensibly follow the same path, with a few minor deviations and alterations. In the 1969 Henry Hathaway version, more time is spent introducing the characters, particularly Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, with several scenes displaying their troubled early relationship allowed to breath. The audience is even witness to the murder of Mattie’s father at the hands of Tom Chaney. Ranger LeBoeuf is also provided a more thorough introduction and at first even rejects the notion of becoming partners with Cogburn and Mattie. Hathway’s version therefore evolves more slowly, often stopping significant action to a halt in order to iron out details about characters’ past lives or more minute details about what characters are after.

Joel and Ethan Coen, on the other hand, choose to bypass much of the early chit chatting in favour of some more concise storytelling. Far less screen time is spent from the moment Mattie Ross first hears mention of Rooster Cogburn till the moment the small band embarks on their trek. This more economical technique is risky in that, for those familiar with either the source material or the 1969 version, Mattie, Rooster and LeBoeuf might not have come across as fully understood people, but these are the Coen Brothers we’re dealing with after all. Time and time again they have exemplified what it means to simultaneously tell a story and provide three-dimensionality to principles (and often secondary) characters. The ticks, the responses to questions, the glares and stances, all of these, even though we see less of them in the early goings than in the 1969 version, are very, very well done and layer the film in rich emotional depth. Another noticeable modification is how the LeBoeuf character comes and goes frequently, the most glaring addition being quite early on when he expresses exasperation at both Ross for her overly mature steadfastness (14 year old girls should not embark on such missions)  and towards Rooster for his defiant attacks on LeBoeuf’s involvement in the Civil War. The Coens re-integrate the Texas Ranger in rather clever fashion which also provides a bit of insight into what kind of man he is.

For the most part, neither film can truly be faulted for their storytelling. Not every single moment has equal entertainment value, there are times when the pace slows down a bit, something that affects the Hathaway version slightly more, but both remain quite good throughout. True Grit is tale about just that, grit. Mattie Ross is looking for a man with such a quality, and in the end finds not only two of them, Rooster and Leboeuf, but clearly exemplifies true grit herself through her bravery in confronting a series of dangerous foes in lands she is unfamiliar with. It is a ‘hero’s journey’ if you will, a classic storytelling device with a slight twist, one that fits the purposes of both True Grit films like a glove.


This is where both films go in different directions to a certain extent. Henry Hathaway should be given plenty of credit for the end product that is his True Grit. While a bit slow at times, his trio of central characters all feel very important and earn all of their respective big moments, with the exception of Mattie falling into a pit of snakes near the end, which comes off as rather clumsy.. His camera, while somewhat workmanlike and avoiding anything especially flashy, captures the raw beauty of the land exquisitely. If the behind the scenes story is to be believed, Henry Hathaway essentially asked for the legendary John Wayne to follow his direction, and, if the actor obliged, the result would be Oscar gold for his performance. The rest, as they say, is history, with Wayne winning the Oscar for best performance in 1969. If anything, Hathaway ‘earned his spurs’ with True Grit, giving audiences a compelling and very classical western tale that put the emphasis on a sense of justice that one simply doesn’t see very much anymore, although that may be for the better. It is very much a tale of revenge, a difficult subject matter for a film whose characters are supposed to be likable.

It is immediately apparent from the outset that the 2010 version, in terms of vision and to some degree in terms of themes, is going to be different. Henry Hathaway did not have the luxury of working with the now famous cinematographer Roger Deakins, but there is not much we can do about that. Not only do the Coens always bring interesting, often innovative ideas to the aesthetic of their films, they work with one of the best men in the business to bring their visions to life. Their True Grit is filmmaking at its apex if one is discussing the topic from a purely visual standpoint. The opening shot, which functions like an eye adjusting to its surroundings while fighting off blurry vision, is valuable not only because it looks fantastic, but also in how it immediately assists in setting up the story as well the character of Mattie Ross (I’d rather not give away what exactly the shot depicts). That’s killing three birds with one stone and the movie only started 3 minutes ago. Such quality directing infuses the rest of the film, which is awash in clever framing, close-ups, long single shots, and some impressive lighting. Scenes will sometimes change with the use of fadeouts and blackouts, and coupled with the framing device, which has a much older Mattie Ross acting as narrator, and pacing of these scenes, this True Grit takes on another life altogether. Similar to Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Though?, it feels like the Coens have put on their storytellers hats on instead of just giving us a movie. Yes, movies tell stories, but there is something special about what Joel and Ethan do with all the tools at their disposal which make their products distinct. Their spurs were earned a long time ago. With True Grit they are merely reminding us of what they are capable of.


No discussion of 1969’s True Grit is complete without mention of John Wayne, who interprets the role of Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed drunkard of a marshal who always digs deep and relies on experience to sniff out his prey. The famous actor’s performance has been referred to as ‘larger than life’ which seems to me somewhat uninspired, ironically, because that is the popular perception of the man himself, not just the characters he portrayed. Rooster is very much in the spirit of what kind of actor Wayne was, it isn’t as if he is entirely outside of his comfort zone. That being said, one should not take Wayne for granted. In fact, the actor’s energy and enthusiasm is charming. Rooster may mostly be a caricature, but Wayne makes him easy to believe in. Despite the marshal’s shortcomings, we’re much rather have him on our side than not. Wayne makes it easy for us to believe in this character, to make us think he is more than just bravado. The star of the show, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, is Kim Darby who portrays Mattie Ross. At the ripe age of 14, she has yet to see much of the world but has already witnessed a fair bit. She is an accountant for the family farm, was brought in a decent family with a sense of privilege but also experienced in hard work, and has lived through the death of her father. Kim Darby adeptly lends all of these elements to her Mattie Ross, who through and through has the determination of a raging bull all the while oozing of some snotty sense of privilege. She hampers on the importance of Tom Chaney being hanged for the murder of her father and downplays the significance of the Texas Senator’s death, continuously reminds Rooster that she is out to get what she has paid for and won’t take no for an answer, regardless of the marshal’s warnings about the dangers of tagging along with him. For her posturing, Mattie feels real. The gung ho attitude and immature sense of righteousness fit the character marvellously. Glen Campbell is adequate as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf and both Dennis Hopper and Robert Duval give interesting cameo performances.

In 2010, another legendary actor fills the shoes of vile Rooster Cogburn: Jeff Bridges. The scene in which Mattie, played by Halee Steinfeld, meets the Marshal had me worried. Mattie stands outside of a latrine where Rooster is evidently taking a long dump. The annoyance at being disturbed during such a private moment meant that Bridges had to play on the southern accent and erupt in. For a few minutes I was terrified Bridges would merely be playing at a southern accent and make foolish attempts at mimicking John Wayne’s interpretation of the character. As the movie unfolded, it became increasingly clear that Bridges had other things in mind. He is so comfortable at inhabiting new characters, people so different from one another, making him one of the more relaxed and versatile actors around. There was a soul to this 2010 Rooster Cogburn, moments of dead seriousness, a few moments of wit, moments when the experience broke through, etc. There is an attention to detail in body movement and glares that surprised me. His counterpart Halee Steinfeld fairs very well. This is a young actress who surely benefited from some of the Coen’s guidance, although I think one can tell that there is some raw talent in that body. Her Mattie Ross is not as snobbish as the 1969 version, and perhaps shows a more vulnerable side. Steinfeld’s portrayal is therefore a more realistic one I believe, which is not a problem per say. As I mentioned, it is a good performance that will undoubtedly get her noticed from now on, but Kim Darby went an extra mile in giving her Mattie Ross some real flavour. The wild card here was Matt Damon, who is far more complex LeBoeuf than in the Hathaway directed movie. The cockiness is still there, but he is a more kind-natured version of the Ranger. The duality of a bad-ass with the kindness is played subtly and makes for a fascinating characters study. I’m tempted to say Damon gives the best performance in the entire film. Barry Pepper’s Ned Pepper impressively echoes what Robert Duvall did decades ago and Josh Brolin is decent as the new Tom Chaney.

Both films offer a good story with some highly entertaining performances and, while each version is well directed, the translation that the Coen brothers have concocted is awash with handsome cinematography and a sense of old fashioned storytelling that suits the purpose of a western so well it is uncanny. The framing device utilized in the 2010 version also adds an extra thematic layer to the plot, as Mattie is in fact reminiscing about how she behaved in her attempts to avenge the death of her father while in the Henry Hathaway movie everything is just playing out. One can’t go wrong with either version, but for comparative purposes I’m giving the upper hand to the new 2010 version.

True Grit (1969) B
True Grit (2010) A-

1 comment:

Laura said...

Great comparisons although I haven't seen the original film. I just saw True Grit last night and, out of the points you made on everything from the cinematography to the performances, I agree with. I'm also tempted to say Damon gave the best performance. I was so intrigued by his character. I felt like I wanted to learn more about him than anyone else in the film.