After recently buying a cheap Blu-ray of the Coen brothers' 2010 version of True Grit, I watched it last weekend.
It was well reviewed when released, and there is much to like about it. First and foremost - it's a fantastic looking film. Just gorgeous on Blu-ray, and the town where it starts looks extremely authentic in a way most Western settings struggle to. [It turns out there's a good reason for that - in the fascinating short Extra feature about the film's production design*, the setting is shown as a street in a real Texas town that had facades built in front of some buildings that were too modern, some period alterations to others, and truckloads of dirt emptied on the paving to make it look like the right era. It's really awesome, sometimes, to see the effort large scale movie making can go to. And it was great to realise that my perception of authenticity was justified, and that I hadn't been fooled by a green screened background.]
Secondly, the Coens are great with loquacious characters in period pieces. We know, from Ken Burn's The Civil War how eloquent even working class men and women from this period could be, and the Coens showed a similar flare for such dialogue in Oh Brother Where Art Thou?** Mind you, I am not at all sure how much of the dialogue is lifted from the novel. I take it from another extra feature that this movie is probably closer to the novel than the John Wayne version.
Thirdly - well, actually, there is no thirdly. Here I have to move on to a couple of issues I had with it.
Number 1 on the downside: Jeff Bridges being allowed to growl his way through scores of pages of dialogue. I've never been a huge fan of his; he always strikes me as a bit of a B actor who has been out of his league in A movies. But really, in this film, his line delivery was too often too much of a challenge to follow: it was rough and gravely to the point of being hard to understand. And it makes the plot of the film (in terms of his background story) too difficult to follow.
I also think the film has a bit of a structural problem. Look, I can barely remember the John Wayne version (I probably saw it on TV in the late 1970's), and certainly was never a Wayne fan; but I do remember thinking that the climatic scene (the horseback confrontation with the four outlaws) was effective, and felt iconic as soon as you saw it.
But the same scene in this re-make plays flat, for some reason. Perhaps because the preamble is poorly set up - there's some "past" between the two main antagonists, but it was lost in the thickly accented shouting at each other before the charge begins. I also think it may be that the scene just seems to spring up too suddenly. I would have to watch the movie again (and I almost certainly will) to work out why this climax seems poorly handled, compared to the cheesier John Wayne version, but I think it is.
That said, there are other sequences and images that do work very well (for example, it's an extremely realistic looking hanging sequence that startles by not pulling back from the actual violence of the act). And apart from Bridges, the actors are all quite fine. (Even Matt Damon, who I often find oddly unconvincing.)
So I enjoyed it very much as a "nearly great, but flawed in interesting ways" sort of experience. Recommended.
* You can see a shorter version of it on Youtube.
** Production design was great in that one too - along with Spielberg,
they seem to care about production design to an extremely pleasing