Coen brothers reunite a great text with its original meaning
A stirring poem to corrupt, bygone society of the Old West
Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel was a rousing Hollywood crowd-pleaser, with the role of Marshal Rooster Cogburn allowing the unfashionable John Wayne an unexpected comeback. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, the 2011 version of True Grit is very different, a stirring poem not to the Hollywood West, but to an Old West, seen firmly through the eyes of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who elicits the help of drunken veteran Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to seek out the gang who murdered her father.
Clearly no one dared to suggest to Joel and Ethan Coen that the Western is considered a moribund genre, and True Grit takes an expansive, detailed view of a corrupt, bygone society. From Matt Damon’s ineffectual Texas ranger to Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney, Mattie’s amoral quarry, the Coens elicit memorable performances from stars and bit players alike, garnished with top-drawer technical specifications. Although the unfamiliar speech patterns and social mores of a bygone period are initially somewhat distancing, True Grit artfully balances tight plotting, wry humour and sparse action scenes.
Lightning rarely strikes twice in the world of adaptations, but Portis’ story is that rare thing – a literary property that has spawned two great films. With True Grit, the Coens have reunited a great text with its original meaning, a minor miracle in an industry where the opposite is the norm.