‘True Grit’: What the Coen Brothers look like when they’re not winking

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Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. ()
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The Coen Brothers have made careers out of taking straightforward stories and familiar genres and rendering them in subversive and sometimes shocking ways. With True Grit, they find a new way to shock: by being more faithful to the book than the original film version of True Grit ever was; by exalting the Western genre unapologetically; by not being ironic, not even a little bit.

True Grit, based on the novel by Charles Portis, is a story of unembarrassed sentiment, of courage and determination. It is also a coming-of-age tale, revolving around the spunky and efficient Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires the debauched U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn to avenge her father’s death.

The first version of the film, made in 1969, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring the great John Wayne, was completely entertaining, and the Coen Brothers have striven for something similarly unpretentious. Their film, true to the Portis novel (in some sections word for word), is a prime example of letting the writing of the original source guide the overall style of the film. There is none of their characteristic “quirkiness” in evidence; they put themselves at the service of the story they are attempting to tell.

Master filmmakers of the old school did that: they told the story, first and foremost. Here, the Coen Brothers very deliberately do not attempt to offer comment on the Western genre from a modern-day distance. The only distance in the remake (not present in the original film) is the use of a voiceover of the adult Mattie, looking back on the events from her childhood as a grown woman. This is actually how the novel is written, and it gives the story an elegiac ache that vibrates through the memorable prose. It works. It works like hell. It helps this film stand on its own, separating itself from the indelible original.

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Young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenager, whose father was killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired hand with a shady past and a black gunpowder scar on his cheek. Chaney has since joined up with outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), and the Ned Pepper Gang is now hiding out in the Choctaw Nation, out of the jurisdiction of the local police.

Mattie, traveling to Fort Smith, briskly puts her dead father’s affairs in order, arranging for the body to be shipped back to her home town, and staying on to grill the police chief about what is being done to find and punish Tom Chaney. “My mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief,” she explains, in just one of the rich lines that this great script (by the Coen Brothers themselves, with a major nod to Charles Portis) has to offer. Mattie learns from the police chief that she needs a U.S. Marshall for the job, and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is mentioned as the most ruthless. Mattie then goes about convincing Cogburn that not only does he need to go after Tom Chaney, but that he needs to take her with him.

Into the story enters the third main character, “Mr. LaBoeuf,” a Texas Ranger who has been tracking Tom Chaney for a long time, due to Chaney’s murder of a state senator in Waco, Texas. LaBoeuf and Cogburn join forces, and the three set off into the wilds of the Choctaw Nation.

In the original, the character of Mr. LaBoeuf was played by popular singer and television personality Glen Campbell. Because of Campbell’s limitations as an actor the story of the rivalry between LaBoeuf and Cogburn couldn’t quite come to life. You never for once believed that John Wayne had met his match in the flashy cowboy with the jingling spurs. But here, LaBoeuf is played by Matt Damon, and what a fortunate piece of casting it is. Damon has never been better.

LaBoeuf, in his cowboy getup, is a comedic creature to the more starkly dressed Arkansas settlers (Mattie takes one look at him and refers to him as a “circus rider”), but he has been tracking Tom Chaney for so long that he has a personal investment in the capture of his man. In that way, he is more of a kindred spirit to Mattie Ross than Rooster Cogburn, because Cogburn is frankly in it for the money.

Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie, has a couple of credits to her name but nothing significant. There was a massive casting call for this role, country-wide, with thousands of girls auditioning for the part. The dialogue is daunting: archaic and formal, with almost no contractions (I didn’t keep count, but when there is a choice between “I’m” and “I am”, the characters here inevitably say “I am”). The language was the main stumbling block for the Coen Brothers in finding their girl. Mattie must speak that way as though it comes naturally; if she seemed affected or precocious, the entire picture would sink. Steinfeld is terrific in all aspects. She is solemn and stern throughout, with a couple of moments when she lets her guard down, and there she is terrific as well. The formal language comes easily to her, but, on a deeper level, it seems to be the survival instinct of a young woman surrounded by large foes, needing to stake out her territory. Her every gesture, her every word, says, “Do not underestimate me.”

She goes toe to toe with all the heavy-hitting actors here, and, very importantly, she is actually the age of the character in the book, whereas Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the original, was 20 years old, a significant difference. When LaBoeuf, in their first meeting, says to her ominously, “I was thinking before about stealing a kiss from you,” it comes across very differently if the girl in question is actually 14 years old. You never “warm up” to Mattie. You are not meant to. She is forbidding as a young child, and she is forbidding as the middle-aged spinster narrating the tale. This is right. The sentiment in the story, then, is honestly earned.

Josh Brolin, as the hunted man Tom Chaney, doesn’t show up until the film is almost over, but the impression he makes is terrifying, not so much because he is violent (although he is that), but because he is so shockingly dumb. (It is clear that the other outlaws think he’s stupid as well. It manages to be a very funny performance.) The casting of Brolin as Tom Chaney means that you are never at ease when he is left alone with Mattie; Brolin brings with him the possibility that anything can happen. He is stupid, but not someone who can be easily dismissed. Many stupid people do a lot of damage. There is a reason that Mr. LaBoeuf has been tracking him for so long, to no avail.

Rooster Cogburn, the self-described “old fat man” with an eyepatch, and a propensity for shooting first and lying under oath about it later, is a man fighting his demons and, by the looks of it, losing. He has a couple of wives in his past, one of whom said to him, “A love of decency does not abide in you” (to which he cracks, “A dee-vorced woman talkin’ about decency!”) Mattie Ross charges into his life, rolls his cigarettes for him, and refuses to be pushed aside, despite his cranky command that she “go back to churnin’.” She says to him, at their first meeting, “They tell me you’re a man with true grit.” But Mattie Ross is the only character in the film who ever says those actual words. Nobody else refers to Rooster Cogburn as having true grit. The Fort Smith policeman describes him as “a pitiless man—he loves to pull a cork.” But Mattie listens on another level, a “pitiless” level. This is the man to bring her father’s murderer to justice.

“True grit” is a poetic phrase as well as a deeply moral phrase. Rooster Cogburn has led a chaotic personal life, with multiple ex-wives who couldn’t deal with him, and children he has abandoned. Do any of the people who know Rooster personally think that he has true grit? It is a strength of the film that this disconnect is merely hinted at, never mentioned head-on.

By the time John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn, he was an institution in what he referred to as his “glorious industry”. He joked, when he won the Oscar in 1969 for True Grit, that he should have put the eyepatch on “35 years earlier,” an acknowledgement from Wayne of the unspoken rule that actors need to ham it up in order to win that gold statue. Wayne, as Cogburn, was able to express more with only one eye than most actors on the planet can express with two. The final moment of the film with Wayne on his horse, calling out to Mattie, “Well, come and see a fat man some time!” before galloping off, is an exhilarating moment in terms of the picture but also, more importantly, in the audience-identification aspect of the Wayne persona. Audiences wanted to see him do that John Wayne thing, in picture after picture, over a 50-year period, and he found it to be an honor to oblige. He understood what it was all about.

And so does Jeff Bridges, although his Rooster Cogburn is an entirely different creation, eyepatch or no. He does not come to the screen with the baggage that John Wayne did; he is not a “persona actor,” he is a chameleon. Jeff Bridges has also been doing great work for decades, with meticulous, diverse performances that continue to surprise and thrill. His performance in Door in the Floor was arguably the best piece of acting he has ever done, and certainly towered above other more celebrated performances that year, but there has always been something about him that flies just slightly under the zeitgeist radar. He is a character actor trapped in the body of a leading man, and it has worked very well for him. He has chosen his parts wisely.

Here, as Rooster Cogburn, he does not soft-pedal the character’s drunkenness (an interesting counterpoint to Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance in Crazy Heart), or the more unsavory aspects of the man, like his unscrupulous behavior on the stand in the opening court scene. He looks bloated, with a red nose and greasy hair, and he walks as though his legs always remember the horse that should be beneath him. His voice is the unrestrained snarl of a pirate; he grunts and sneers and scowls all over the screen from the moment we hear his first line emerging from the privy: “The jakes is occupied!” It was a risk, that voice. Jeff Bridges takes big risks as an actor. It is a thrill to watch him in action.

The shootout in the valley between the Ned Pepper Gang (four on one side) and Rooster Cogburn alone on the other side is replicated almost shot for shot from the original, even down to the high-speed close-up of Cogburn putting the reins between his teeth so he can shoot with both hands. It is a magnificent and exciting sequence in both versions, and is an example of the Coen Brothers understanding that if something “ain’t broke” then there is no need to mess with it.

But there is one sequence where the Coen Brothers veer off, artistically, from the original, and that is the sequence when Rooster Cogburn drives a horse across the prairie because Mattie has been bitten by a deadly snake and will die if she does not get medical attention. When the horse collapses under them, Cogburn picks Mattie up in his arms, in the middle of the endless nighttime prairie, and staggers on, knowing he has miles to go to get to the nearest outpost.

In the original, most of this takes place in the daytime. The Coen Brothers turn the episode into a masterpiece of nighttime images, the galloping horse seen in stark black silhouette against the flat horizon, or charging along against the midnight blue sky, with a dizzying star panorama stretching around the two characters. The phenomenal score (by Carter Burwell) is urgent and pulsing, an emotional undertone to the blue, black and grey color palette.

The desperation of Cogburn’s quest, his willingness to ride a horse to its death in order to save a young girl (when the only moment of uninhibited kindness we have ever seen from the character is when he protects a horse from two children cruelly teasing it), is poignant and powerful, simply done, and eloquently rendered with almost no dialogue. All of the cinematic elements come together in this one magnificent sequence: music, acting, direction, sound and cinematography (by the brilliant Roger Deakins, who showed his aptitude for vast prairie spaces most recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Jeff Bridges’ one eye gleams maniacally as he carries that young girl in his arms across the prairie. The girl must live. He does not indulge in unnecessary emotion because there is not time. She must live.

What we see here is the Coen Brothers devoting themselves wholeheartedly, even solemnly, to translating Charles Portis’ book into film. In doing so, they end up with something that bears few of their usual hallmarks. In many ways, True Grit is an old-fashioned movie. In this case, that is a very good thing.