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The Coen Brothers' True Grit: Putting John Wayne to Shame

Critics need to chill about the Coens' lack of proximity to the original film, and see the new version for the great work it is.

True Grit is a big hit for the Coen brothers, giving them their best opening weekend ever. Their growing popularity cues two inevitable reactions:

1) the claim that they’re improving as filmmakers, finally learning how to do it right, “it” being the tired sentimental humanism that goes over so big with so many dopes; and

2) the claim that they’ve sold out, abandoned their dazzling formalism, lost their satirical mojo, and degenerated into sinful conformity.

Of these two positions the first is by far the dumber and more common; I just had it solemnly presented to me by a bearded academic at a Christmas party, which is a lesson to me to stay in lockdown over the holidays.


The second position represents a more legitimate worry when watching True Grit: it looks plain and straightforward, it’s PG rated, it’s emphasizing the children’s-adventure aspects of the material—it seems, God help us, to have been made into safe viewing for kids.

But this film is just a variation on business as usual for the Coens. It’s very much in keeping with the Coen policy of turning out great, rich, bloodsome stuff in a casual or even stealthy way, without much pomp or clamor. Partly because of this greatness-by-stealth-policy, a lot of people are only just recently catching on to the Coens. Right around  No Country for Old Men time, critics sat up from their long naps, shook their blocky heads and said, in the cadences of The Far Side’s cavemen, “Hey! Look what Coens do! Them make movies good from books!”

See, the Coens started adapting books around 2007, and that’a really helped a lot of critics appreciate them at long last, only twenty-some years after they started making great films. Because most critics have high-culture hang-ups that should’ve died out sixty years ago but persist among a sad retrograde sliver of the population, they get all hot for Literature, so film adaptations of works by pre-approved authors like Cormac McCarthy have made them reconsider the Coens.  True Grit, based on the stark, grim, and deeply funny 1968 novel by Charles Portis, is generally getting high praise. (A 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in the parlance of our time.) The praise itself is wrongheaded in all particulars, but still.

For example, David Edelstein of NPR starts off his review as fatheadedly as possible:

Joel and Ethan Coen are probably tired of the question, but you can’t not ask it: Why make a film of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit when it already was a movie — a good one — with a definitive, Oscar-winning performance by John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn?

You see? Idiocy right off the bat. The 1969 movie version of  True Grit was not a good movie, and there was nothing definitive about John Wayne’s performance of the “Rooster” Cogburn character. The best you can say about the 1969 version was that John Wayne seemed to be enjoying himself hamming it up with the eyepatch and all, and I suppose getting an Oscar for it was a nice treat for him before he died of the Big C.

Otherwise it was about as moldy and clueless an entertainment as was ever made; even when new it seemed to have been designed for doddering denizens of old folks’ homes, something to run on the lounge TV and cast a vague, comforting, nostalgic glow for the terminally checked-out. The appalling Kim Darby as Mattie Ross was an insult to any intelligence above an earthworm’s, and on top of that there was Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf—yeah, that’s right, the “Wichita Lineman” singer taking a shot at acting, sorta like Ricky Nelson did alongside John Wayne in  Rio Bravo back in the dear old days of yore.

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