Joel and Ethan Coens’ True Grit is so lovingly crafted a film—so wonderfully acted, directed and photographed—and so undoubtedly one of the most entertaining movies of 2010, that it’s a real shame it doesn’t finally resonate with the power and complexity we have come to expect from the best films of the Coen Bros. It has remained amazingly faithful to the popular 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and that is both its strength and, unfortunately, its problem. There were times watching this film when I began considering if one of the greatest American movies ever made was unfolding itself right in front of my eyes. What a clear shot the Coens had. What a grand opportunity they have missed.
The Coens have been so true to the original Charles Portis text—and have obsessed themselves so much over each of the unforgettable characters and action sequences—that the dubious political undertones of Portis’ story seem to have flown completely over their heads. As regular readers of Icebox Movies are aware of by now, my history with True Grit (both with Portis’ novel and with Henry Hathaway’s Oscar-winning 1969 film starring John Wayne) has always been in bad blood, largely because of my suspicions that Charles Portis wrote the book in order to stress his endorsement of "frontier justice." I walked into True Grit with high hopes that the Coens had a plan up their sleeves to deconstruct Portis’ right-wing sensibilities, and walked out in awe of their visual accomplishment, but also in disappointment of the areas in which they failed to act. Is it fair for me to conclude that the Coens have somehow managed a fine film out of a story that is simply banal?
In a time when Mike Huckabee is declaring that the death penalty is the only fitting punishment for the crime of treason, why do we need a remake of True Grit? What lessons could we possibly learn from this kind of gung-ho, old-fashioned Western? After Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) so profoundly closed the door on “frontier justice” by telling the sad truths about it (“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got, and everything he’s ever gonna have”), a movie like this can do nothing else but open that door right up again, putting us back in the middle of an uncomfortable period in our nation’s history. I don’t think it ever occurred to the Coens that True Grit is a complete rejection of the lessons of Eastwood’s film.
Another problem with True Grit is how it crassly reverses everything the Coens have ever said to us in their films about crime, violence and religion. In Fargo, Marge Gunderson was not afraid to be tough when she needed to be, but she also believed in the good-natured concept of talking to the criminals in her custody (“There’s more to life than a little bit of money… don’t you know that?”). In No Country for Old Men, Ed Tom Bell realized that John Wayne-style law tactics could not conquer an atrocious human evil, and gave up. In A Serious Man, when God did not solve his problems for him, Larry Gopnik had to deal with them himself, and somehow found a way around most of them.
So, how does True Grit contribute to this beautiful cycle the Coens have been building up over the years? Does it at all? Traditionalist critics and audiences are always complaining about the Coens’ penchant for deviating away from the norm, and now it looks like the Coens have finally caved in to them; they’ve taken a step backward and made a film stressing another one of those banal insights about how crime doesn’t pay, coupled with a divine message (strictly Judeo-Christian) about how God will hold us all accountable for our actions. Doesn’t this contradict practically everything the Coens have ever taught us in the past? Aren’t they selling out a little?
The plot: 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is saddened and infuriated when her father, Frank Ross, is gunned down in the streets by the family’s tenant, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), after Ross tries to peacefully intervene during another one of Chaney’s drunken outbursts. Angry because her family took Chaney in out of kindness, and believing he deserves nothing less than death by hanging for his horrendous crime, Mattie (narrating as a woman in her 40’s) recalls her burning hatred for Chaney in a bitter opening voiceover. "You must pay for everything in this world one way and another," she says. "There is nothing free except the Grace of God."
Because local authorities in Fort Smith are hesitant to pursue Chaney into Indian Territory, Mattie seeks out help from the marshals in town, and handpicks Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) from the selection because he is the “meanest” and is said to have his fair share of “grit”. A Texas Ranger in town by the name of LaBeouf (Matt Damon) is also hot on Chaney’s trail, but for an entirely different crime (LaBeouf wants to arrest Chaney for assassinating a Texas senator and his “bird dog”). Both Cogburn and LaBeouf make amusing entrances in the film; we first see LaBeouf, in the darkness of the evening, laying his boots up on the front porch, a la Henry Fonda in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). And Mattie’s first encounter with Cogburn occurs not immediately after Cogburn’s trial against the infamous Wharton brothers, but—in the movie’s first big joke—outside the door of an outhouse.
The outhouse joke is one of many bits of humor (typically Coensian) scattered all around the film; the Coens have recognized some of the more absurd moments from the book, and have cheerfully taken advantage of them. The “Grandma Turner” joke, for example, is milked until its dry. As is the odd line from the undertaker presiding over Frank Ross’ body (“If you’d like to kiss ‘im, it’d be alright”), which is repeated in the screenplay not once, but twice. And Rooster Cogburn is, himself, a big ham if there ever was one. He kicks around two Indian kids who are abusing a poor horse. He orders Mattie to climb a tall tree (in a scene not from the book) and cut down a corpse hanging from a branch, inspects the dead man’s face, and delivers what is probably the single funniest line in the movie. He and Mattie are dumbfounded (in another scene not from the book) by a peculiar man riding through the snow dressed in bear skin. The oldest and saddest joke in the movie is a pure satire of the racism of the times; in an earlier scene, when Mattie attends a public hanging, the two white men are allowed to say their last words, but the Indian is, of course, denied that rightful privilege.
I want to talk more about this hanging sequence, though. It is a scene taken from the book, but I have never understood its purpose in the story. What compelled Charles Portis to dream it up in the first place? Is he trying to make some kind of statement about capital punishment with this scene? Not likely, since, after Mattie leaves the scene, her bloodlust is regained. She still wants to see Tom Chaney hanged. Watching men hang in public has not affected her plans in the least, even though (at least in the book) the sight of watching it has grieved her somewhat. It doesn’t, you see, change her opinion that Chaney deserves to be swinging from the other end of a rope, and I think Portis meant for his readers to share her bloodlust. Do the Coens mean for their audiences to share her bloodlust, too? Are they trying to make a political statement of their own?
I could go on and on throughout this review complaining about the politics of this movie, but if I did that, you would never want to finish reading it. And neither would I. It should be obvious that I take some moral objections to this story, but make no mistake about it: True Grit is an admirable film. With the help of their usual technical collaborators (cinematographer Roger Deakins, musical composer Carter Burwell), the Coens have again demonstrated their impeccable talent for putting on a hell of a show. And there is another artist of notable credibility who has teamed up with them this time: Steven Spielberg. I was momentarily surprised when I saw him listed as one of the executive producers in the end credits, and he couldn’t have supervised over a better duo of directors. I hope that he and the Coens will collaborate again in the future. With True Grit, the Coens have achieved a rarity in that they have fashioned a remake that is better than the original film. I will go even further than that: their film is better than Charles Portis’ book.
The casting is inspired. Jeff Bridges may have been the only actor in Hollywood who could have convincingly changed our perceptions of Rooster Cogburn without memories of John Wayne getting in the way. I must confess that I have never admired Wayne’s portrayals of Cogburn—that includes his work in the original True Grit as well as in the abysmal sequel, Rooster Cogburn and the Lady (1975), which paired him up with Katherine Hepburn and which was more a rip-off of The African Queen than anything else. As good of an actor as he was in other films, Wayne was simply too old for the part; his booming line delivery didn’t help things much, either. I think Bridges has found a better approach to the character, and what the Coens have had him do is a masterstroke: they have directed Bridges to speak in a gruff, incomprehensible voice so that it is (intentionally) difficult to make out just what the hell Cogburn is mumbling about in each passing scene. Fans of the original Hathaway film kept jeering in the previous months about “the Dude filling in for the Duke”, doubting that Bridges was up for the task. He has proved them wrong, and drinks down the job faster than a White Russian.
I was even more surprised at how impressed I was with Matt Damon’s portrayal of LaBeouf, a character so boring in Portis’ novel (and so god-awfully played by a terribly miscast Glen Campbell in the Hathaway film) that I was convinced there was no way the character could ever be successfully portrayed onscreen. Here is where the Coens make a very interesting deviation from the book: they have cut LaBeouf out of most of the scenes, ensuring it so that he doesn’t travel with Mattie and Cogburn every step of the way on the journey, making him far less obnoxious than he was in the book. Damon portrays LaBeouf, instead, as a man anxious to get away and catch Chaney on his own—as too proud of a Texas Ranger to admit that he was helped by a one-eyed marshal and a 14-year old girl. By cutting LaBeouf’s screentime in half, the Coens have effectively made him more strange, more mysterious.
Taking on the enormous responsibility of stepping into Robert Duvall’s shoes (and Duvall is perhaps the only actor who was actually well-cast in Hathaway’s film), Barry Pepper breathes new life into the memorable character of the evil Ned Pepper. Unquestionably the most interesting and charismatic villain in the story, it is a challenging role for sure, but Pepper makes every inch of his screen presence count; when we first see him, his cowboy hat casts a menacing shadow over his face, his teeth are ugly and yellow, and, with his boot planted down on poor Mattie’ head, he roars out, “You answer me, Rooster! I WILL KILL THIS GIRL! You know I will do it!” like he means business. Pepper also manages to make Ned Pepper a flat-out likable bad guy: when Mattie, sensing he poses no threat, asks him, “Do you need a good lawyer?” he deadpans, “I need a good judge.” Plus, the final standoff between Cogburn and Pepper’s gang of horsemen is kind of magnificent. And Pepper’s last words (“Well, Rooster, I am shot to pieces!”) still make me smile.
By far the most wonderful performance in the movie is delivered by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose performance as Mattie is the heart of the picture. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie was played by Kim Darby, who, bless her soul, was too old for the part—and whose performance was, to put it lightly, over-the-top. Not only does Steinfeld look the part, but she makes us believe we are watching a 14-year old who would have behaved exactly this way, at that time. Steinfeld also takes on some of the harder stunts in the film with bravery and with a “grit” of her own. She plunges a horse headfirst into the middle of a deep river. She climbs onto the roof of a “dugout” cabin to cover up a smoking chimney. She falls backwards into a deadly snake pit. She does it all. Here is a promising young actress who will be going places for sure.
But Josh Brolin’s portrayal of Tom Chaney presents certain problems. It’s a disappointing performance because Brolin has been forced to portray Chaney as he has always been portrayed, both in Portis’ novel and in the original Hathaway film: as a one-dimensional monster. We never see Chaney as anything more than a murderous coward who has his punishment coming. I did enjoy the scene in which Mattie discovers Chaney at the bottom of the creekbed; Brolin is allowed to be humorous, and his line delivery in the face of Mattie’s orders that he march up the hill (“Well, I will not go! How do you like that?”) is wickedly funny. But the Coens don’t go farther than that; for the rest of the film, they reduce Chaney to a one-dimensional coward. I intensely disliked a scene in which they even try to have Chaney come across as some kind of deranged serial killer: the scene consists of Josh Brolin pouncing down on Hailee Steinfeld, holding a knife to her throat and proudly stating that he doesn’t regret murdering her father (as opposed to the book, in which he indicates that he does regret his crime). It is easily the worst scene in the whole film.
Would it have hurt if the Coens had tried to make the Tom Chaney character a little more human and more empathetic than he has been in the previous versions? There’s a reason why Chaney mutters to himself, “Everything is against me!” in every other scene: because he’s a wounded man, a tragic figure who is driven to kill innocent people because life has beaten him senselessly towards that point. Maybe if the Coens had recognized this, they might have realized that there are, in fact, several antiheroes of this kind in their other films. Jerry Lundergaard in Fargo. Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing. Charlie Meadows/Karl Mundt in Barton Fink. Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men. The Coens made noble efforts to look into the dark souls of all of those characters. They didn’t ask us to sympathize with them, but they did ask us to at least empathize with them—to understand how they got that way. The Coens could have easily done this with Tom Chaney as well. Perhaps then, True Grit would have been a much more complex film. Instead, they have taken the easy way out.
Most of the deviations that the Coens do make from Portis’ novel are successful. They have cut out a lot of superfluous scenes from the book to help pick up the pace; for example, the scene in which Mattie has to chase after Cogburn and LaBeouf on horseback after crossing the river. But there is one change the Coens make from the book that I wish they hadn’t made. It occurs during the gruesome scene inside the “dugout” cabin, when Cogburn is forced to shoot Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) after he fatally stabs a younger kid, Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), for squealing about Ned Pepper’s whereabouts. Dying on the floor, Moon utters a line about how he will meet a brother of his “walking the streets of Glory,” to which Cogburn replies to him, “Don’t be looking for Quincy.” In the book, Moon responds to this by defending Quincy to Cogburn: “Quincy was always square with me… he never played me false until he killed me.” It was a mistake for the Coens to cut this line out; why they cut it out, I have no idea. The line is important because it allows Moon to defend Quincy as a seemingly good man who, unfortunately, let his emotions get the better of him and murdered his best friend before dying. Apparently the Coens don’t care about that.
And when the movie ended, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have gained from it. What has Mattie learned from her adventure? That there’s power in killing? That there’s power in cold-blooded vengeance? How does she feel about killing Tom Chaney? Did it ease any of the pain she had over her father’s death? What emotional consequences did she reap from the journey? That she lost an arm? That she never got married? Is that it? Are we only supposed to be concentrated on what she lost? What about the others? Wasn’t their loss far worse than any tragic “losses” she may have suffered, if any? Is this all about her?
True Grit is, as I’ve said, an admirable film. I wish it had been more. I think it could have been more than just one of the more well-made films of the year. It could have been one of the best American movies ever made. But, at the end of the day, I suppose one shouldn’t get too worried over such things. The film doesn’t earn itself a place near the top of the Coens’ accomplishments, but no matter: it’s what the public wants. It’s what fans of the book want. It’s not a great movie—but, then again, it doesn’t need to be. It’s close enough. And certainly the Coen Bros., of all great filmmakers, have earned the right to deliver a movie that is just that: close enough.