Much has been made of the fact that the Coen Brothers, one of the most original movie making teams of the past three decades, have done a remake of the 1969 film True Grit. Many people forget that they also did a remake of the 1955 British comedy The Ladykillers back in 2004. Forgetting their version is probably a mercy, as it did not compare well to the original.
Joel and Ethan Coen have said in interviews that they were not remaking a film as much as they were filming a novel that had been turned into a film before, but staying more true to the material. I saw the new version this week, and it outshines its predecessor in many ways.
True Grit was a good John Wayne movie, not a great one. It gets a lot of credit because Wayne won the Oscar, but this Oscar win was more or less an apology to a dying man that his good work on film had been ignored for so long. The Coen Brothers' True Grit is a much better film, and casting makes a major difference. Jeff Bridges is not John Wayne. He is not this generation's perfect Western icon, but you can believe his Rooster Cogburn is a mean, no nonsense, hard drinking lawman.
The casting that makes the biggest improvement is to have Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Not to give away too much plot, but Cogburn is hired to chase a criminal and LaBoeuf comes to town to announce his prior claim on the man for the murder of a senator in Texas. The two men have a clash of wills, but agree reluctantly to work together.
In the original, the role of the Texas Ranger was played by Glen Campbell. In a battle of manliness, John Wayne vs. Glen Campbell is a grotesque mismatch. It might be that studio executives thought it could work because Ricky Nelson successfully played a young gun in Rio Bravo, but Glen Campbell is not even in Ricky Nelson's league as an actor. His performance was as unconvincing as the sideburns he wore, and he couldn't really keep up with Wayne or Kim Darby.
The other casting coup for the recent version is Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the young woman who wants her father's killer brought to justice. Kim Darby was 22 when she played the 14 year old Mattie and already a six year veteran in front of the camera. Ms. Steinfeld is 14 and this is her first major role, having small roles on TV or lead roles in short films. I put up this picture of her from the movie instead of her publicity headshots because in costume, she is very believably a young woman from the 19th Century American West. The ads list Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin as the stars above the title, but the movie belongs to Hailee Steinfeld, and she gives a masterful performance. (Brolin plays the object of the chase, the killer Tom Cheney. He might have about ten minutes screen time total.)
I have barely mentioned Jeff Bridges, who is the big star. He does an excellent job, but the movie really works because the two other leads do such a great job of holding up their ends of the story. It feels much more balanced than the 1969 version.
If you like Westerns at all, you should see True Grit. Unless you have the absolute best home entertainment system available, you should see it in a theater on a screen that does justice to the big outdoor scenes.