On a narrative level, there’s little to say about the Coen brothers’ new version of True Grit that couldn’t be said about the first film. Plenty have talked about the differences; how the Coens stuck closer to the novel than the 1969 film. The differences are relatively negligible, however, with most of them concentrating in the beginning and the end. It wouldn’t be a Coen film without a slightly ominous start and a darker conclusion. Even the style has much in common, from the dialogue to the characters to the type of shots used. More centered on the character of Mattie, this True Grit treats Rooster Cogburn as less legendary and untouchable, more prone to failings of humanity. John Wayne’s Cogburn is more ideal, more fused to the landscape, and given a final shot of riding off into the sunset. In the Coens’ film, Rooster flakes out. He takes off and doesn’t appear again. He makes a last-ditch effort to reconnect with Mattie but dies before the reunion.
In this way and nearly every other, the Coens’ film departs from the nostalgia-driven film from 1969. Whereas that film might have been wallowing in a self-conscious last chance to feature John Wayne as a central hero in a Western film in an era of the genre’s deconstruction and reconstruction, this new film reflects the present obsession with the “real.” The Coens will be the first to emphasize the harsher realities of life (namely, death) and sacrifice the deeper undertones of idealistic heroism that have driven so many older films. Even their comedies reject the traditional happy ending that was part and parcel to the genre. There may be nothing more “postmodern” than the idea and the very term “tragicomedy.” Mattie’s loss of an arm and her image as a slightly unfriendly, mildly haggard “old” maid skips ahead far enough to remind the viewer of certain post-narrative inevitabilities of the kind that many films (including the original True Grit) would prefer to avoid.
As Beardsley pointed out, religious language is live and active here, not unlike in the Coens’ earlier O Brother, Where Art Thou? Grace and redemption are mined for their utility to the diegetic world, the characters, and the story; mostly the first. Mentioned in the introductory voiceover, Mattie talks about grace and hope as a high crane shot captures a God’s-eye view of the town in such a way as to illustrate the brokenness of the world and its need for such ideas for survival. But these are token mentions, instruments to serve a narrative purpose just like they were in O Brother. Still, one can’t help but wonder if, in the Coens’ world, these concepts aren’t more than throwaways. The most hopeless nihilists out there still living need to hold on to the possibility of hope. Since the Coens poke fun at nihilists (see The Big Lebowski) as much as they do at everyone else, and since they made True Grit immediately following A Serious Man, it would seem that they haven’t given up yet.