I took my preparation seriously, too, by re-watching the original. Although I regretted it when I discovered how much I’d forgotten, including both LeBoeuf and Blackie coming to sticky ends. In fact, I’d forgotten pretty much everything except Rooster’s iconic 4 against 1 gallop, a gun in each hand and reins between his teeth. But I recovered after a minor sulk: the Coen’s version was always going to be more about the telling than the tale. And how Jeff Bridges fared against John Wayne.
So, did it live up to my expectations? Well, yes and no. In some ways it was closer to the original than I expected. Often word for word, which I found slightly disconcerting, although interesting. (Think the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, where Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature.) And it didn’t always work. For example Rooster’s ride to save Mattie at the end felt so dated I can only imagine it was an homage to the original. Especially as, elsewhere, Roger Deakins’ cinematography was as bleakly beautiful as you’d expect.
As for the acting, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross was a revelation. At 14 years old, she was better able than Kim Darby to capture the mixture of grit and naivety the role demands. The scene, for example, where she attempts to ease the tension between Rooster and LaBoeuf by suggesting she tell a ghost story worked far better than in the original. Similarly, although I must be one of the few who didn’t mind Glen Campbell in the original, Matt Damon made a good stab at LaBoeuf, being more than willing to ham it up to bring some humour to his role. As Mark Kermode stated, he’s ‘become an actor of very great range almost while no one was looking’.
Another high point was the supporting cast. Revisiting the original, it was good to come across Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall who I’d been unaware of 30 years ago. This time the bonus was Josh Brolin as Chaney (although I agree with Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian that he struck a slightly uncertain note as a weaker man) and the aptly named Barry Pepper, brilliant in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, as Lucky Ned Pepper.
Sadly, though, I was disappointed by Jeff Bridges. I’m getting bored of his beyond the pale, dishevelled characters now and, unlike John Wayne, I never believed he cared for Mattie. Even if it was an affection based on egotism, as suggested when Mattie swims across the river on Blackie’s back and John Wayne’s Rooster comments admiringly, ‘she reminds me of me’. Interestingly, this was one area where the dialogue noticeably departed from the original, so I suspect it was a conscious decision to make the film less sentimental. I, for one though, missed both the affection and the swagger that this self-love brought to the role. A swagger reinforced by Rooster’s ‘I robbed a high-interest bank. You can’t rob a thief, can you? I never robbed a citizen’, which took me straight back (or forwards) to The Wire and Omar Little’s ‘Hey look I ain’t never put my gun on no citizen.’
There were also one or two moments that jarred, when the Coens couldn’t resist waving their hands in the air and going ‘ooh, me miss, me, I know this one’. For example, the ride at the end or the clunky humour of Mattie telling a young black employee she’s named her pony ‘Little Blackie’. I also missed the prologue of the original, which shows us Mattie with her father, although we were given an epilogue to compensate.
However, I adored the language (in another possible link with Omar): formal, with an idiosyncratic vocabulary and lacking in contractions, the Coen’s took their lead from Charles Portis’s novel. As Barry Pepper explains, ‘It was more like doing American Shakespeare… There’s almost like an iambic pentameter. There’s a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s about trying to hit certain notes… the scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre.’
My feeling at the end (despite some false notes) was that, unlike LaBoeuf’s comment on Mattie ‘You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements’, the Coens give out plenty with theirs.