I made the mistake of watching the 1969 version of this classic western on DVD a couple of months ago. I say mistake because if I had come to the Coen brothers' new take on it cold as it were I would've appreciated it much more. Though it's not ostensibly a remake – the writer-producer-directors have stuck more closely to the novel than Henry Hathaway's effort – the plot is still identical and a pervading sense of deja vu engulfed me while viewing it.
Both versions start off smartly but then adopt a meandering tone for a long stretch of time before picking up before the end. But at least the Coens have a better cast at their disposal. Not least Bridges, ideal as reprobate lawman Rooster Cogburn, the drunken, one-eyed sheriff who can't always shoot his targets with precision. He barks, growls and looks dishevelled with gusto, though he's difficult to understand early on. His rhythms, cadences and diction take some getting used to, but one warms to him as the story progresses. As does Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), the self possessed 14-year-old who hires him to track down Tom Chaney (Brolin), her father's killer. They're accompanied by Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Damon), who is out to capture Chaney for a different murder and receive a large reward for his efforts. The three strike up a decidedly awkward alliance.
For two-thirds of the way the pacing is too languid to involve; a tighter rein is required, though the dialogue is full of good lines pleasingly delivered by the characterful cast. Damon gives a nicely understated turn, a vast improvement on Glen Campbell from the original, but then who wouldn't be? Steinfeld is excellent as the determined girl fiercely set on avenging her pa's murder and more than holds her own against her two illustrious co-stars. Once Mattie finds her detractor Chaney and his gang, it shifts up as gear and gains momentum. Brolin and Barry Pepper are both first rate at delineating their villainous traits in limited time, and the action shoot outs are delivered with satisfying brio.
In the original however, the scene where Mattie by chance makes contact with Chaney along the riverbank is rivetting – it's supremely compelling seeing the two of them size each other up across the water, and for the remaining 40 minutes the John Wayne oater is riproaring entertainment. This scene doesn't work so well in the new version. It lacks drive and excitement and this could be levelled at the movie as a whole. It's certainly bloodier and the performances are more vivid but Roger Deakins' cinematography is harsher and grimier. There are beautifully framed shots with impressive vistas but it's less colourful – the original was bathed in sunshine. The Coens operate on a darker terrain and their retelling, despite the talent and care lavished upon it, isn't as memorable, ultimately lacking the forceful impact required. A very good movie to be sure, but it misses out on being a great one.