True Grit ’69 and ’10

I watched the 1969 John Wayne version as a preparation for the 2010 Coen Brothers film. Both of them are good films in their way, but they run with the source material in rather different ways.

Both films depend strongly on their child stars, since without the kid coming along the story is well on its way to being utterly generic western fare. Kim Darby in the 1969 production is a mixed bag, characterization-wise: she’s a tomboy looking for a fight, but she comes off as having entirely too much fun most of the time she’s on screen, as if hunting down her father’s murderer and everything associated with it is a jolly lark. The 2010 characterization is much more consistent with the plot, replacing the childlike enthusiasm with a grim determination, and betraying her immaturity not through enthusiasm but through a sort of prim propriety. John Wayne is the leading actor in the 1969 production, but he basically plays John Wayne; Jeff Bridges brings the role a bit more subtlety, with more irascibility and less indestructible hardassedness. The role of LaBoeuf is an odd one: I daresay Matt Damon is a better actor than Glen Campbell, but his screentime is reduced and his ability to show dramatic range rather limited.

Cinematically, the Coens surely have the superior work, on a few key points. They avoid the original’s well-known blooper of putting snow-capped mountains in a setting which is, ostensibly, Arkansas; the locations for shooting were Texas and New Mexico, which have regionally-appropriate foothills. They also set the right tone with a muted color balance and a more period-appropriate score.

The differences in plot and dialogue I must confess a certain ignorance of, because the Coens made several choices which diverge from the previous film but are much truer to the novel. Most of the plot-relevant ones are easily verified, and they make them work well in film. The only thing which somewhat grated was the dialogue: everyone speaks a surprisingly stately English entirely devoid of contractions. For Mattie that works (see my comments on prim propriety above), but for the adult characters it seems artificial and stilted.

On almost all fronts, then, the Coens have a superior work. I’m not sure whether it’s superior to whatever they might have done besides a remake of a John Wayne western, because their choices of what films to make are often eccentric and not always successful. Taken on its own merits, though, this is a solid reinterpretation.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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