In 1956 John Wayne gave the finest performance of his career in John Ford's classic western The Searchers, a film that turned the typical Wayne oater on its head. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a bitter, grizzled loner who returns to his brother's homestead after the Civil War. Within days he has buried his brother, nephew, and his sister-in-law after a savage Indian raid. Ethan and his nephew Martin begin a relentless search for the two daughters taken captive. As the search drags on and Ethan sees the remains of the older girl, his prejudice grows. Now he must find little Debbie, the youngest child. He is afraid that she has been taken as an Indian bride and swears that she would be better off dead. Wayne gives his character a brooding, almost unstable personality, ready to lash out at Martin or anyone who stands in his way. I won't spoil the outcome of the finest western in American film, but it is one of the most harrowing and moving you will ever see.
By 1969 Wayne's career was on its last legs and so was the western genre. Wayne signed on to play Rooster Cogburn, an aging, drunken lawmen with an eye-patch and a big gut, in the first film version of the novel True Grit by Charles Portis. The film was more a comic western than a true western, and Wayne played Cogburn broadly all the way to an Oscar for Best Actor. All of this Wayne history is obviously leading up to a review of the Coen Brothers' new version of True Grit, which follows the novel more closely, especially in the stilted, almost formal dialogue of the characters. The question of which film superior is an easy one to answer. The Coen Brothers have fashioned a tightly controlled, often humorous, and occasionally violent film that seems to have little connection to their earlier work. It lacks the zaniness of Raising Arizona or the black humor of Fargo or the grim hopelessness of their Oscar winner No Country for Old Men.
The original True Grit was entertaining but hardly that memorable. This film features wonderfully textured performances from the entire cast and especially from Jeff Bridges as Rooster and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the steely fourteen year old who is determined to avenge her father's murder. Steinfeld dominates the first half of the movie as she battles the legal system and sleazy businessmen in Fort Smith, Arkansas. She knows the law, finance, and how to cut a deal. And she leaves her opponents, including Rooster, shaking their heads. When she first encounters Rooster he is in an outhouse and wishes not to be disturbed. This doesn't stop Mattie, and neither does the gang Tom Chaney is running with in Indian territory. The second half of the film is devoted to the chase and a series of thrilling but not overly exaggerated action set pieces. Bridges looks much worse than Wayne did, always slurring his words, gulping more booze, but shooting straight most of the time. Together they make an endearing team, and the Coens have made their most irony-free, amusing film.