If there is one type of movie that I associate most with my dad, it’s the Western. Born and raised in central Texas around the mid-century mark, my dad grew up surrounded by cowboy iconography. Growing up I heard stories from my father’s youth about Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger, John Wayne, and Will Rogers. Later, we watched westerns on Saturday afternoons–anything with Clint Eastwood or John Wayne was sure to stay on the television until the credits rolled. I never took to the “cowboy movies” much beyond the age when I strapped on plastic six-shooters and pretended that my best friend was Tonto, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn to those films that my dad always loved.
The only thing about the 1969 version of True Grit that I remember is John Wayne’s look as Rooster Cogburn. I’m glad for that. It gave me the chance to see the Coen brothers’ version with my dad as a completely fresh movie. Going into it, I was worried that True Grit 2010 would be so attuned to my sensibilities that it would necessarily alienate my dad who owns a copy of the 1969 version and who grew up with westerns that were somehow less, well, gritty. When I realized about halfway through the film that it was working for everyone and that my fears were unfounded, I was able to settle in to enjoy a good, old-fashioned western made with the eyes of a contemporary film making team.
Thankfully, the Coen’s have fulfilled the promise of No Country for Old Men with a real deal western that isn’t marked by anything modern other than a zeal for authenticity. It seems that Eastwood’s Unforgiven gave the western film genre some post-modern credibility and that True Grit in turn demonstrates that a rollicking cowboy movie can be both fun and thoughtful without giving itself over to tired cliches. The contemporary take on the western isn’t bound to cynicism the way I might have thought–at least not this one.
My dad seemed to like it. He appreciated the beats of the film that mirrored the original (and judging by the 1969 trailer, there are many) but he also enjoyed the fresh elements that the Coens brought to the table. Sometimes I think that film makers like the Coens are working from too dark of a place for folks like my dad who grew up with movies as a colorful means of escape. Then a film like True Grit comes along and the Coens can apply their sensibilities to a yarn that works as a thrilling cowboy movie without dousing the whole thing in a dose of misanthropy and I realize why I love watching movies with people again.