The western genre has become something of a ghost town in modern years. It has evolved into an oddly nifty artistic genre as the general public has turned away from it, given to breathtaking landscapes (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”), archetypal, grizzled portraits of masculinity (“Tombstone”, “Open Range”) and to some extent outright oddness (“Sukiyaki Western Django”). At its very best the genre is capable of redefining itself and our own paradigm of “The Old West”, if that phrase even carries meaning anymore. “True Grit”, as a remake of the John Wayne classic of the same name, therefore represents an odd trail marker in the western’s long and storied history—it’s a film that brings not only the history of The West with it, but also the history of The Western and goes to great lengths to honor, celebrate and perhaps recalibrate both. The Coen brothers have done more than enough to carve out their acreage in the cinematic frontier, but with this film they’ve managed to do something that feels like homage and humble, dedicated respect to the greats of the past while still creating a film that feels unique to their slightly off-kilter brand of, well, everything.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me explain my own relationship with the western genre. My father loved John Wayne and Clint Eastwood when I was growing up, but I didn’t sit and watch a lot of westerns with him. The names, however, were familiar to my ears before the idea of cinema as a serious artistic medium ever drew my attention (the first movie my parents took me to see in theaters was “Prancer” which one could argue is grounds to have this whole blog shut down). In college my only film course put before me a 35mm print of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and the dialogue-free opening of one of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time drew me into the world of film in a way I’d never experienced before. I went to the movies a lot, but I didn’t really think about movies. And yet here was a western playing with near-silence for more than 10 minutes and then exploding with violence before becoming still again…it was masterful manipulation of the viewer and I was hooked. But with other genres to distract my attention, I didn’t delve as deeply into westerns as I might have. Much of John Wayne’s greatest work remains unseen by me (including—but not for long—the original “True Grit”), and with the exception of “High Noon” I’m less familiar with John Ford’s work than I know I should be. But I know the genre enough to recognize its thematic thrusts, wide-open landscapes and strong, silent protagonists. On one level this is unnecessary to appreciating the power of the Coens’ take on this material, but on another level it’s entirely essential to appreciating just what they have created here—a “modern” western which not only conforms to the mold of the dustiest classics but practically demands a viewer brush away that dust and give them another look.
“True Grit” opens quietly to snow falling on a body as we listen to the voice of Mattie, the eldest daughter of the corpse, as she explains to us in unwavering tones who killed her father (Tom Chaney) and why (to steal some horses and two gold pieces) and what she plans to do to rectify the situation (have him tracked down and see him hanged). Hailee Steinfeld is outstanding in her role as a resolute and stubbornly feisty 14-year-old girl who views herself (probably correctly) as the only person with the tenacity and interest to see her father’s killer brought to justice (of one sort or another). The calm detachment with which she explains her intentions as we watch snow collect quietly on her father’s body, which lies tragically at the steps of their own home, suggest a girl driven and disconnected from the emotions which would cost her whatever little credibility she might earn in the masculine, malevolent world she’s about to enter into.
Her introduction to that world is handled deftly with Mattie observing twice more the face of death as three men are hanged and she’s given a place to stay in the embalming room where their bodies will be kept. These sequences are treated with a dose of black humor, including the funniest gallows humor (in the most literal sense) you might see in a movie this year. It made me laugh aloud in the theater, but my sense of humor makes my mom ashamed of me, so perhaps I’m making too much of it. I don’t think so though; the Coens seem to want us to stare the idea of death and the act of taking life square in the face alongside the resolute Mattie very early in the film. She sleeps alongside dead bodies for a night, and the mortician helpfully suggests (repeatedly) that “it would be all right” if she kissed her dead father, as if such a gesture will relieve her of her troubles. Later he will assure her that if she wants to sleep in one of the coffins, that would also “be all right”. She observes the hangings fairly stoically and, in fact, seems encouraged by the snapping of necks that this is indeed what she must seek for her father’s killer. Indeed, when she seeks out a Marshall to track down Chaney, she is determined to go with the meanest of the bunch to assure that she gets what she wants.
Rooster Cogburn requires little time to convince her that he is, indeed, the man she needs for this job, and he does it without even having to speak to her directly. She first observes him giving testimony for a shooting he was involved in (or instigated), snarling and growling answers disdainfully in regards to how the roll of men he’s sent to the great beyond has grown so long (23 by the prosecution’s count). Jeff Bridges brings more than a trifling of ambiguity to the character from these very first moments of the film. He borders on being incomprehensible, not only in speech but in action and character. His gravelly voice and murmurings require full attention and at times leave you wishing you hadn’t understood him after all. He’s a fully legitimate U.S. Marshall, but he may have run with criminal gangs in the past. He is devoted to the law in many senses of the term, but seems to take a certain pleasure out of operating in the deepest shadows of its gray areas and possibly abusing his position to commit acts of violence better left to the judicial system (dispensing bullets where a noose is more proper). His interests before the court seem more about entertaining himself than defending his badge (or honor).
It’s with Cogburn’s entrance into the story that the film begins a gracious bow in reverence to the westerns of old. Cogburn is the apotheosis of the tough, ambiguous and uncompromising men who inhabited the dusty streets and sun drenched plains of the old west, if Hollywood history is to be believed. Where we wish him to be honorable and righteous he is disinterested and amoral, where we wish him to be sympathetic he is amused and indifferent, and where we expect him to be heroic he sometimes delivers and sometimes passes out in a drunken stupor. His counterpart in these proceedings is a reluctant Texas Ranger, played with a subtle grin by Matt Damon, who serves as a semi-comic foil for Cogburn’s cowboy toughness. When we first meet him, LaBeouf is waiting in Mattie’s room for her to awaken. Though startled, she recovers quickly enough to observe that he looks out of place since “we don’t have rodeo clowns in Dell County.” LaBeouf has been chasing Chaney for months and laments firing wide the one time he got “within 300 yards of him”, which doesn’t say much for his rangering. But in the true spirit of the Ol’ West, LaBeouf is given an opportunity to prove his grit and mettle alongside the grizzled lawman who he butts heads with so fiercely at first. Again the Coens nicely play on western tropes as experience breeds calmness, patience, and slow self destruction while the young and brash must prove themselves and earn the right to be torn apart by the same forces that leave Cogburn living (or at least drinking and sleeping) in back of a Chinese grocery.
The ambiguity of morality, civility, and loyalty are played like pocket aces by the Coens throughout the film, but their true talent is best displayed by the fact that despite ambiguities everywhere, in the end there is little doubt of the rightness of certain actions and the code of ethics by which those who take action come by their decisions. Third acts such as this one are the bread and butter of the best western films, and here is no exception. Cogburn’s actions are inevitable if you have listened to (and translated) everything he’s told Mattie of his past in the film, and yet his crowning moment remains a moving one in the film for reasons I wouldn’t spoil for you here. I bring it up vaguely in order to point out that this, too, speaks to the depths of study the Coens have done of the western genre—Cogburn is a true western protagonist in the sense that his actions, at long last, will match the philosophies of a life he has lived and survived.
Taken as a whole, the film is funny, tragic, and violent in roughly equal measures—a balancing act which would almost certainly have toppled in less capable hands. It’s also filled with the touches we’ve come to expect from a Coen brothers creation, rife with oddities and unexpected developments which lend the film moments of mild surrealism which never last long enough to distract but offer enough impact to make their own take on the west unique and perhaps more accurate in its own strange way to an era which seems to have no entirely honest representation, hence its unending charm.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:
- The Coens continue to render shocking changes of tone in their films with masterful touches of isolated violence. Here, as in films like “Burn After Reading”, the shock of violence exploding without warning is there and gone before you can draw in your breath, and the impact of it lingers even after Cogburn is back to remarking with amusement about the dead.
- I found Cogburn’s long horseback ride at the end of the film (vagaries to spare you spoilers) to be fascinating in its aesthetics: The Coens seem to have forgone more modern approaches to shooting the scene in favor of very old fashioned film techniques which look artificial yet gorgeous (close-ups of his and Mattie’s faces against a starry background particularly stand out). Several shots were clearly done on a sound stage. Without having a particular film in mind, the whole sequence felt to me like an attempt to recreate similar dramatic rides/moments from the old black and white era of westerns.
- Cogburn has more clever one-liners than I can list from memory (I’ve decided I’m not taking notes in theaters for the purposes of reviewing—it seems distracting to people around me), but I enjoyed the fact that regardless of the line, they always seemed designed to amuse only himself. What anyone else might think of him or his sense of humor never even enters his mind. “Just don’t go looking for Quincy there” he tells a dying man who says he’ll meet a brother of his in heaven, and he declares flatly “I do not know this man” to Mattie after making her climb a tree to cut down a hung man based on the presumption that he might have known him.
*Spoilers here to bottom*
- The presence of the bear-clad doctor and the man who speaks only farm-animal struck me as charming oddities of the Coens, but they always have so much working within the clockwork of their films that I wonder whether a repeat viewing might render the two characters more meaningful in some context. Thoughts?
- The epilogue of Mattie as an adult felt somewhat unnecessary to me. I appreciate seeing that there was, in fact, a price to be paid for the justice she sought, but beyond that sad revelation I didn’t find the coda to be particularly enriching to the film. Mostly because seeing Mattie as an adult tore me from the attachment I had to her 14-year-old self. It’s a safe guess based on her stoicism that she would grow to be a reserved old maid not to be trifled with, but to see it play out only takes away from the courageous child that she was while adding nothing to the unspoken results of her relationship with Cogburn. The trajectory of his remaining time is similarly predictable and better left to our imaginations.