Everything about the Coen brothers’ True Grit feels like a western . . . the music, the costumes, the sets, the cinematography, the language. Okay, maybe not the language. In keeping with the book, the characters in the movie rarely use contractions in their speech, with the result being that the dialogue (which sounded wooden in the original movie version), retains its stilted form. Everything else is seamlessly stylized.
True Grit compares to its 1969 predecessor the way any good movie today compares with a good movie from that era. All of the technical aspects are much more sophisticated and the Coens make excellent use of these enhancements. The night scenes with the snow falling were breath taking. But it’s also true that their film reflects our current sensibilities just as the original did the values of its time. We’re more sensitized to the rights of native Americans, so the 2010 version shows a condemned Indian not being allowed to speak even though the white men about to hang are granted the right. We’re into realism in our portrayal of violence so we see blood spatter on Rooster’s face.
This contemporizing carries over to the heart of the picture and forms what I think is the most dramatic difference between the two movies: the character of Rooster Cogburn. In both, Mattie hires Rooster to help her track down her father’s killer because she believes him to be a man of true grit. But Rooster 2010 proves to be a major disappointment. Between his drinking, his adversarial relationship with LeBeouf (who leaves them not once, but twice), and his “bowing out” on Mattie three days into the wilderness (telling her she’ll have to find her own way back), he shows anything but grit. He is a sorry excuse for a marshal and a man. Of course, in the end he does rescue Mattie, riding all night to get her help after she has been bitten by a snake. But this is not so much to Rooster’s credit as it is in keeping with the Coen’s world of ambiguity, where there is no black and white—only gray.
That’s a significant departure from the original where Rooster and Mattie had a strong, solid relationship. Rooster 1969, though far from flawless, nonetheless had some sense of honor. He saw to it that Moon was buried, because he told him he would. In the new version, he doesn’t because the ground is hard and “they should have got themselves killed in the summer.” where Rooster 1969 was lacking (wanting to split Moon’s money with the storekeeper), Mattie brought out the better in him by making him send some money to Moon’s brother. No one can make Rooster 2010 do anything he doesn’t want to do.
That’s why the movies have to end so differently. In the original we have that tender scene with Rooster and Mattie in her family cemetery before he rides off into the sunset. She wants him to be buried next to her because he is a person of true grit as she is. In the current version, Rooster ends up in a wild west show where he entertains people with a fictitious version of his past. After twenty five years, he contacts Mattie to come see him but by the time she arrives, he has died. The final scene of her standing over his grave in her family cemetery seems out of place in the context of their relationship. What was there in their relationship to justify him being buried in her family plot? Is it because in the quarter of a century that followed Mattie made no closer relationships? Or is she just paying him back for rescuing her since “You must pay for everything in this world . . . there is nothing free in this except the grace of God.” More ambiguity. At the end of the original, you’re inspired by the grit you see in Rooster and Mattie. At the end of the 2010 version, you might be praising the Coen’s for an artful movie, but there’s nothing that grabs you and makes you want to watch it again. And in the end that’s what a good movie should do, isn’t it? If it doesn’t resonate with you in such a way that leaves you uplifted, enlightened, or disturbed—then how good is it? Both movies are entertaining and well done (for their time), but only one has true grit.