Guest Post – The Modern True Grit: Another Coen Brothers Masterpiece

It’s probably a personal quirk, but the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite movies. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would share that opinion with me, but for the most part, it’s not the typical moviegoer’s cup of tea (or Coke, as it were). However, beyond the frighteningly precise violence that turns off the faint of heart, there’s a compelling story with vivid characters and an immaculate standard for subtlety and talent.

When I saw True Grit last weekend, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having read the book and seen the original movie, I knew it couldn’t be a nonstop stream of austere brutality and elaborate violence. I hoped for the high production standards I’ve come to admire in the Coen brothers’ work, but True Grit is the epitome of the classic Western. I didn’t know what they could possibly do to it that would top John Wayne’s performance, provide a new perspective, improve the story, or make it better in any other way. And that’s why I’m not the Coen brothers.

An Overview of the Plot & Main Characters

If you’re unfamiliar with True Grit, the story is about a young girl named Mattie Ross whose father is shot by a backstabbing criminal called Tom Chaney. Her mother doesn’t have the initiative to try to catch the killer, so fourteen-year-old Mattie sets off to find someone who can help her apprehend Chaney and either kill him or bring him to justice. She chooses Marshall “Rooster” Cogburn, but they are joined by LaBoeuf, a ranger who wants Chaney caught and brought back to Texas for crimes committed there. The three of them are divided by different motivators, but they set out to find Chaney together. While trying to achieve their goal, they encounter more than they bargained for and must rely on each other to survive.

Remaking a Classic: The Big Decisions

It takes a lot of moxie to give a classic movie a makeover, but the Coen brothers took on the challenge with great success and aplomb. Based on my observations and a little comparison between the original movie and the Coen brothers remake, I identified a few major changes that give this modern version its own identity.

Starting with the movie trailers, they’re obviously different films – and yet they’re eerily similar, with characters dressing the same way and delivering the same lines. The original trailer is lighthearted and informs viewers that the movie is a “high adventure” Western and that it’s a great comedy, highlighting amusing scenes and type-casting the actors. Watching it, I got strong stereotypical vibes from each character, yet the trailer succeeded in drawing an audience. The Coen brothers’ trailer is a different animal, but it includes one of the scenes from the original trailer, which makes for an interesting comparison. The modern True Grit is – well, grittier – and it shows short clips from nearly every violent scene in the film. This trailer doesn’t advertise a heartwarming film, but it does promise to deliver on more action and violence, darker undertones, and impeccable casting.

At first glance, none of the characters seem all that different from the original cast. However, as the movie progresses, it becomes obvious that the Coen brothers had a specific agenda and a carefully hand-picked cast to help them bring it to life. Every actor is deliberately delivering the essence of the characters described by Charles Portis in his original rendering of True Grit as a short book.

For example, although Mattie still exhibits a healthy amount of naiveté in the modern version, she loses much of the childishness that makes the original True Grit movie more overtly comical. Mattie is humorous in the remake, but it’s easier to take her more seriously and to absorb the deeper messages conveyed through the story. She’s not as cute or immediately likeable as the original Mattie, but that only adds to her charm and effectiveness.

LaBoeuf is played by Matt Damon in the modern True Grit, which seems like an odd choice until the movie has progressed enough to show that he’s the perfect choice for the character. It’s not a role I would have typecast him for, but he breaks out of his stereotypical characters to play LaBoeuf masterfully. He even manages to retain vestiges of the typical Matt Damon role as he plays LaBoeuf, enhancing the slight “buffoon who takes himself too seriously” vibe that comes across in the book.

Once the plot progresses to the point where Chaney enters the action, it’s obvious that the character’s function is to help Mattie realize that a criminal can’t be counted on to be the unstoppable force described by others or built in one’s own mind. Chaney is a big disappointment, an unintelligent and sniveling creature who severely underestimates Mattie, Cogburn, and even LaBoeuf. The way Chaney is cast in the Coen brothers’ version highlights an important angle of the story that was more difficult to pick up in the original movie.

Peeling Off the Varnish

If you’ve read or seen True Grit, you know how ridiculous it is for me to say that the role of Cogburn is unvarnished in the Coen brothers’ version. “Rooster” is already a roughly hewn character, and that’s putting it mildly. Cogburn does as he pleases, would rather ask forgiveness than permission, and sees himself as a radically independent man, so it’s hard to strip any varnish off of that kind of character.

There’s also the issue of casting Jeff Bridges as Cogburn. When I first heard that he would be playing the character, all I could think of was “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. I just couldn’t imagine Bridges playing this role, even though The Big Lebowski was a Coen brothers film. I foresaw “The Dude” rocking a cowboy hat and inviting everyone to go bowling after the next hanging in the town square – a total disaster. However, the brothers Coen managed to show me that their version of Cogburn was masterfully conceived and executed.

In the original movie, Cogburn is comically gruff, yet demonstrates obvious protective affection for the young girl who’s asking him for help. He openly discredits her and her request because of her young age, but he tells her that he’ll give her dinner. In the remake, there’s no such kindness being demonstrated by Cogburn – he’s merely a tough character who doesn’t yield to her first request. There’s a similar instance in the original film where Cogburn says of Mattie, “She reminds me of me.” This comes across much more subtly in the Coen brothers version, eliminating that line entirely and showing this important development to the audience rather than telling it aloud. Somehow, this has the effect of making the relationship between Cogburn and Mattie appear deeper and more meaningful in the modern version.

In general, the entire story loses its veneer and presents itself to the audience in a “take me as I am” attitude. This is deliberate, of course, but the movie makes no apologies for appearing to be a rougher version of the shiny original. By showing the human condition at its best and worst, without making excuses or altering reality, the Coen brothers bring the essence of True Grit to the surface. The characters disappoint, double-cross, and physically hurt each other with raw emotions and real violence, but this brings the spectacular old story to life in a more vibrant and convincing way. This is definitely a remake that’s worth seeing at least once.

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education where she’s been researching both the highest paying jobs and the lowest paying jobs on the market. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


    1. You should definitely check it out. I haven’t seen the original either, nor have I read the book, but I was blown away by the new one.

      I’m also not typically a fan of Westerns; they have to do something new to be able to keep my attention, and True Grit was brilliant, really. It never felt like it was following a formula, like so many praised Westerns do (I’m looking at you 3:10 to Yuma).

  1. people underestimate Jeff Bridges acting ability all the time, but the fact is – he’s a very, very good actor. its the curse of the most memorable role 🙁

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