I watched the 1969, “True Grit” right before I went to see the new one; I’m still trying to decide if that was a mistake. The old version is a classic, if a flawed one; it’s the only movie John Wayne ever won an Academy award for, but it feels terribly dated in 2011. The score especially bothered me; grim scenes were frequently interrupted by music that sounds straight from the “Oklahoma” soundtrack. The message communicated by the score, and the postcard-pretty scenes of the Rocky Mountains seems to be “Golly gee, isn’t it wonderful to be riding across the Wild West in search of my father’s murderer? Is there really anywhere you’d rather be? What fun we’re having!”
But that was the way of Westerns in the ’60s; watch enough of them and you stop noticing it. Genre conventions have changed, and the Coen brothers have successfully updated “True Grit” to the modern genre standards (the music is a lot more depressing, for one thing.) But really, that’s all they’ve done. Joel and Ethan Coen are some of the most talented filmmakers in America, but they occasional coast (see “Intolerable Cruelty,” or rather – don’t) and they’re firmly on cruise control through this one. They’ve taken a good movie, shined it up and shaved off some of its rough edges, but really, is that so hard to do? I expected more.
The fact remains that this is a very entertaining and enjoyable movie. It deftly alternates between darkness and humor; there were a lot of well-earned laughs in the theater. The performances are quite good; newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is much better than her predecessor, most likely because she actually looks fourteen (Kim Darby was 22 in the original.) There are probably a lot of ways a less surehanded director could mess up a remake of a classic, and the Coens have avoided nearly all of them (except one: I like the old ending better.) Some scenes seem to be line for line the same as in the old version, and no major plot details are changed. It’s the 1969 version, updated. Call it True Grit 2.0.
As enjoyable as it is, I have a hard time believing it will stand the test of time. In twenty years, when the genre convention have changed again and this film looks as dated as the old one does now, will people choose Jeff Bridges’ Rooster over John Wayne’s? I doubt it. Like so many other remakes, it’ll go down in history as nothing more than a footnote to that film.