True Grit: Back in the saddle

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

What possessed the Coen brothers to remake the classic, which starred the greatest screen cowboy of all time? Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, says John Walsh, the new movie captures thoroughly modern themes of moral redemption

On 15 December, at a film premiere in New York, Jeff Bridges enthused to fans about the brilliant future that lay in store for the beautiful 13-year-old girl beside him who twirled for the cameras and told reporters, breathlessly, that she'd finished her 7th-grade exams during the shoot and was looking forward to entering 8th grade.

In the film, Bridges plays a clapped-out, broken-winded US marshal with an eye-patch, whom the girl hires to avenge the death of her father, killed by a renegade called Tom Chaney, who has a black powder-burn mark on his cheek...

You've heard this plot before? Of course you have. The original True Grit came out in 1969, directed by the veteran Henry Hathaway, and won an Oscar for its central character, played by the greatest screen cowboy of all, John Wayne. After a lifetime in movies, it was Wayne's only Oscar at the age of 62. ("Wow," said Wayne, as he accepted the trophy from Barbra Streisand. "If I'd have put that patch on 35 years earlier...") But the movie was a hit for many reasons.

For one, it was family-friendly. At its core was the precise, precocious, hyper-articulate and very Christian young girl, Mattie Ross, who always gets her way and successfully browbeats the drunken, one-eyed lawman, Rooster Cogburn. For another, it featured three nasty villains in Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, plus – among the good guys – the country singer Glen Campbell, playing (not terribly well) a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf.

The luminous photography was by Lucien Ballard, favourite Western lensman of Sam Peckinpah. It featured a fine climactic shoot-out in which Cogburn, insulted beyond endurance by four mounted enemies, yells, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch," takes the reins in his mouth and gallops straight at them, firing a revolver with one hand, firing and re-cocking his rifle with the other. And it had a happy ending, in which Rooster visits Mattie at her family ranch. She tells him she would like him to be buried beside her in the family plot and, with a cry of "Come see a fat old man sometime," he jumps a four-rail fence on his splendid new horse.

What on earth, then, could have persuaded Joel and Ethan Coen, the enfant terribles of Hollywood, the most quirky, stylised and intelligently weird of film-makers, to remake True Grit for a modern audience? Their version stars, alongside Bridges, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, Josh Brolin as the murderous Chaney, and the startlingly accomplished Hailee Steinfeld as young Mattie.

Certainly there are some classic Coen touches: an opening scene that's one long, slow, zoom-in, a scene of public hanging played for laughs, a final coda that's one long, slow walk away from the camera, a surreal moment when a bear on horseback emerges from the frozen Colorado forest. But the majority of the film takes no shocking liberties with the original plot. Early reviews by American commentators are calling it "a reverential piece of nostalgia" and assumed that the Coens wanted to make a "straight" film for a change. Could that be true?

Such a limited view misses the point – indeed, it misses two points. The first is that nostalgia is the last thing the Coens are about. True Grit is a film about redemption, and both its theme and its idiom are as modern as WikiLeaks. The narrative about the comprehensively washed-up, or down-and-out, or alcoholic, or corrupted, or out-of-date, or retired, or morally disgraced suddenly finding themselves back on their feet in a big adventure is the most potent myth in modern movieland.

It's all over the place. Two weeks after True Grit opens on 22 December, we can enjoy Country Strong, the story of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow,) an alcoholic singer just out of rehab following her arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct, who takes to the road and discovers that an irritating young rival is being given her songs. It's a version, with added tears, knickers and boyfriend fights, of the part Jeff Bridges played last year in Crazy Heart – Bad Blake, the has-been C&W singer who temporarily wins the heart of dreamboat local hack Maggie Gyllenhall.

Last year, Michael Caine played the retired ex-soldier turned inner-city vigilante in the pitiless British revenge thriller, Harry Brown. Two years ago, an almost unrecognisable Mickey Rourke virtually played himself in The Wrestler, about an old grunt'n'groaner with a dicky heart who refuses to succumb to a new career behind a sausage counter. It came out shortly after Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino, played a widowed, retired, ex-factory worker and Korean war veteran called Walt, whose life is confined to watering his lawn and grouching at his relatives until he redeems himself by saving his Hmong neighbours and spraying a local gang with bullets.

All these movies hark back to the classic 1982 Sidney Lumet film of David Mamet's courtroom drama The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic, washed-up, etc, lawyer who takes a medical malpractice case to court. They follow the same trajectory, as we watch a terminal no-hoper embark on a final, death-or-glory adventure. Where the Coen brothers have scored is in giving their washed-up, etc, hero a subversive pride in his own hopelessness: Bridges's Rooster never for a moment doubts his own abilities, even when he fails to shoot a whiskey bottle lying on the ground. His personal self-belief remains unaffected by events and setbacks. His personal redemption comes from a climactic, night-time ride to save a human being rather than to defeat an enemy or win a bounty. As such, it's far more moving than the usual triumph-of-the-has-been drama.

The second virtue critics may have missed is that the Coens are not trying to remake the film; they're trying to make a more faithful version of the book. Charles Portis's novel True Grit came out in 1968 and caused something of a stir in literary circles, but it was soon eclipsed by the hoo-hah around John Wayne's Oscar. The Coen brothers have gone back to Portis's clever fiction because they liked, not just the plot, but Portis's unique way with language.

So far, the US critics seem not to have noticed that Portis gave his characters an extraordinary cod-Victorian conversational style which fits perfectly with the Coens' love of strange and off-key communities. In the first film version, Matty, when haranguing Rooster Cogburn about his drunkenness and rousing him to action, says: "Now I know you can drink whiskey and I saw you kill a rat, but all the rest has been talk."

In the Coen brothers' version, she says: "Now I know you can drink, and swear and spit and bemoan your situation. The rest is braggadocio." Where a 14-year-girl could have picked up a word like "braggadocio" from, God only knows – but Rooster himself is capable of a posh turn of phrase when it suits. During a row with Matty and LaBoeuf, he wails, "I'm an old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpie in trousers and a nincompoop." Sounding like something from Jane Austen, Matty wails, "He has abandoned me to a convocation of thugs." When Rooster sets off without the girl, leaving her a note warning her (we hear only the voiceover) that "pursuit is futile," she berates him for having spelt "futile" as "fudel." At one point, Matty and LaBoeuf discuss the difference between malum prohibitum (something that's bad because it's illegal) and malum in se (something that's bad because it's morally wrong,) at which Rooster complains that the latter "spills the banks of English".

Does that phrase strikes you as a bit Shakespearean? Plenty of the dialogue could have come from Restoration comedy, or Henry James or, indeed, Joe Orton. Where the original film script, by Marguerite Roberts, allowed Matty one or two Bible-school locutions (when offered a slug of whisky by Cogburn, she says, "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains") the Coens' script presses down on the literary pedal, until the formality of language becomes a vital part of the film's unique world – just as the "oh-ya" dialogue helped define the Scandanavian micro-culture of their native Minnesota in the movie Fargo.

Starting from the proposition that we have little clear idea of how cowboys conversed in 1880, the Coen brothers spoof the whole tough-guy genre by having everyone speak in formal exchanges. In what other Western would a young girl tick off a Texas ranger for his "ineffectual pursuit" of a villain? In which one would a ranger say to a sheriff, "You seem to have graduated from a marauder to a wet-nurse"? No wonder they wanted to adapt the dialogue themselves. It's a scandal that they're not nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar.

True Grit is one film remake that makes sense. It takes the source material, a book that gently subverts and teases the earnest conventions of the Western genre, and tweaks up its subversive tactics; but it also honours the unique idiolect of the original, finding in it a language with which the makers can play merry hell. The result is terrific. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the new version of Brighton Rock (out in February, written and directed by Rowan Joffe) to see the difference between a remake and a genuine re-invention.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor