When a drunken employee kills her father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) sets out to avenge his death. She hires gruff alcoholic federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to track down the culprit- who goes by Tom Chaney. Cocky Texas ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), who's been tracking Chaney for another murder, joins up with them and the trio goes after a notorious robber whom he's involved with. Mattie must continually fight to be respected and treated as an equal, eventually proving herself more than useful in the chase.
Yeah, so good for John Wayne, he got his Oscar, and he wears an awesome eyepatch, and he's funny and gruff and gritty all over the place. And, ok, so Glen Campbell got to sing the theme song and wear spurs, and be a middling actor. But really, this movie is so completely all about Kim Fucking Darby as Mattie Fucking Ross, who quickly became one of my new favorite characters ever on film. My adoration began early, spotting Darby's adorable pixie cut and set jaw, and exponentially increased with each new cool thing she did. She's sharp and witty, well-spoken and good with numbers, always speaks her mind, can ride a horse and shoot a gun, and just generally gets shit done. However, she remains a realistic character with frequent reminders of her youth in her stubbornness, fear, and childish interests. She's just great all around, really. It was so unexpected to see a character like that in a John Wayne western in 1969, I admit I had underestimated the filmmakers.
The plot is typical western revenge territory, setting itself apart primarily through memorable and interesting characters and their well-developed relationships, along with some cool twists and gorgeous vistas. The film does fall prey to a few expected "60's western" setbacks in its slow pacing at the beginning and somewhat garish color palette, but overall True Grit is just fantastic. It's even got a young Dennis Hopper for like five minutes! Wowee!
Ok so the plot of the remake is essentially exactly the same, there's even a lot of the same dialogue (I assume they both lifted right out of the book). This time Mattie is played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Rooster is Jeff Bridges with an eyepatch on the other eye, La Boeuf is Matt Damon, and Tom Chaney is a rather skinny Josh Brolin. The main story difference is La Boeuf splits up from the search for a little while, and there are a few kooky characters added in true Coen form, but that's about it. Also there's a much more kick-ass climax, involving a character being shot and then falling off a cliff. Rad.
So I'm sort of torn about this movie. It's really, really good, no doubt about it, with a great cast, tongue-in-cheek dark humor, and gorgeous cinematography with great use of browns and blues. However, overall it's very close to the original film and really doesn't improve upon much. Hailee Steinfeld is great as Mattie, especially considering her age (13) and inexperience. She's a bit more grounded in her performance, but also less lively than Darby. Bridges is great, as is his want, but his over-thick accent made him too comical at times and a little hard to understand. Damon is very good as La Boeuf, but the role is diminished so it doesn't stand out much. I didn't love Brolin as Chaney, finding his speech affectation unsettling and confusing, but I did enjoy the brief appearance from Barry Pepper.
While I dug a few of the changes (mostly that climactic death thing I mentioned), I think a few other things were done better in the original. For example, I didn't feel the relationship between Rooster and Mattie is as well-developed in the new one; I just didn't feel it as much. In the end, it all balances out, and so I really don't think there needs to be two versions of True Grit. I'm glad this new one will introduce more audiences to the story, and I'm so glad a talented new actress like Steinfeld has the opportunity to work with big actors and receive such exposure, but it just feels weird that two of these things exist. The Coens needed to make it more Coensy so it would stand out more, I guess. I know if I hadn't recently seen the first one I wouldn't be so caught up in it, but I can't help looking at it that way.
PS Oh also on the off-hand chance that the couple who sat behind me at the Harvard screening reads this: you people are awful. Especially the guy. Stop talking so much and over-reacting to every single thing and yelling at the screen. You suck. Have you never been to a movie before? Is this new to you? Learn basic etiquette before you leave the house, please.
My original poster design for this film is for sale.