True Grit first published by EyeforFilm
There is a strange sequence in the middle of Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, True Grit.
Headstrong 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and her hired lawman Deputy Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn’ (Jeff Bridges) are riding through the Choctaw Nation in search of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who gunned down Mattie’s father in cold blood. On the trail, they discover a corpse hung high from a tree. It turns out not to be Chaney’s, and a passing Choctaw takes it off their hands. “It is a dead body,” Cogburn explains to his young ward, “possibly worth something in trade.”
A few minutes later, a gunshot is heard – a prearranged warning from the Choctaw that the two searchers are being followed. As Cogburn and Ross stand and wait to see who is after them, a giant bear appears to emerge from the drifting snow – except that it is not a bear, but a wild-eyed wanderer (Ed Corbin), covered by a full bearskin (including the head) and shaggy beard, who calls himself Forrester but is listed in the film’s closing credits merely as ‘Bear Man’. Far more monstrous in appearance than the ‘Davy Crockett’ type of frontiersman more usually celebrated in oaters, this bestialised eccentric is an itinerant dentist, veterinarian and doctor (“for those humans that will sit still for it”) who, now himself in possession of the hanged corpse, tries in vain to sell it back – sans the teeth that he has already removed – to Cogburn and Ross. Forester also kindly offers Cogburn directions to the nearest shelter from the snow, a riverside dugout built by a second, apparently legendary frontiersman whom Forester carefully names. “Grazier Bob,” he says, “the original Grazier Bob, is hunting north of the picket line, and would not begrudge its use.”
A hanging corpse. A hairy Forrester. An ‘original’ trailblazer. These are all mysterious figures, materialising in the narrative without explanation or ado, and disappearing from it in similar fashion, never to be seen or even mentioned again. What is more, they occupy the only extended sequence in the film to have been invented from scratch by the Coens themselves rather than sourced from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit – a novel which the Coens have otherwise adapted with even greater fidelity than Marguerite Roberts did for Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film of the same name.
Perhaps, then, this section of the film represents the Coens’ own reflexive commentary on their relationship to their source material. On the one hand, the 1968 book is like a corpse that continues to be traded about and despoiled of its parts long after “the spirit has flown” (as Ross has said earlier of her own departed father), while on the other, Portis’ original is like an absent pioneer who nonetheless remains hospitable and accommodating to any newcomers wishing to use the ground that he has himself broken – and so these two ‘characters’ (the corpse and ‘the original Grazier Bob’), each departed in one way or another, have become vivid metaphorical figures through which the Coens can dramatise the very ethics of adaptation and derivation.
In other respects, too, the Coens have managed to put their own stamp on borrowed material. Both the snowy setting and an introductory voice-over that stresses the incredible-but-true nature of the story to follow evoke the filmmakers’ previous Fargo (1996). The casting of Jeff Bridges as one-eyed cowboy Cogburn recalls his earlier role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998) – a character who was hilariously introduced in that film’s opening sequence as though he, too, were an iconic oater hero (“Way out west there was this fella… “). The casting of Josh Brolin and the focus on an aging hero – “I’ve grown old” is Cogburn’s last line in the film – recalls the Coens’ other adapted (neo-)western, No Country For Old Men (2007). And the sparkling stylisation of the film’s dialogue has the Coens’ unmistakable fingerprints all over it.
There are three standards against which True Grit can be measured – namely, against Hathaway’s ‘original’ film version, against the whole subgenre of the revisionist western, and against the Coens’ own corpus. Although the 1969 film holds a much-loved place in the nostalgic memory of many an oater fan, and even went on to spawn its own sequel (Stuart Millar’s 1975 feature Rooster Cogburn), few watching both True Grits back-to-back could disagree that the Coens’ rendering is superior in just about every way.
Where Roberts’ screenplay opted at times for easy sentiment (and let Mattie Ross keep her arm), the Coens’ writing is not only wittier – witness the pure pleasure they take in Ross’ literal horse-trading with Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), or the laconic understatement in Cogburn’s every utterance (“that did not pan out”, etc.) – but also as chilly as a late Oklahoma autumn. And where, in Hathaway’s film, DP Lucien Ballard (best know for his work on The Wild Bunch, 1969) employed sunny wide-open vistas as the entirely conventional backdrop for his characters’ last hurrah, Roger Deakins’ more imaginative mastery of cinematography allows the film’s eschatological themes and melancholy moods to be visually encoded right from the opening image: a blurry light that gradually resolves itself from the darkness, only to illuminate a dead body.
Here the performances, too, are more nuanced, and have a greater sensitivity to the vulnerabilities that underlie the various characters’ ‘grit’. John Wayne may have earned his one and only Oscar for True Grit, but where The Duke traded largely on his iconic status and an eyepatch, The Dude offers an altogether more lived-in turn as the disreputable old bushwhacker, playing up the man’s earthy gruffness, his drunken idiocy and his gaping self-pity and increasing alienation. Steinfeld matches the peculiarity of Kim Darby’s earlier performance as the teenaged tomboy heroine, but is far less robotic, transforming the character into a credible mix of determination and fragility, and setting Ross’ highly precocious intellect against a girlish sense of adventure. To paraphrase her opening line in the film, people may not give credence that so young an actress, in her first big-screen role, could so capably carry a film – but this is precisely what happens. Meanwhile, Matt Damon excels as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, a man whose blustering talk and perfectly polished boots both conceal and betray a more deep-seated self-doubt.
Arguably the Coens’ film fares less well when compared to other, similar revisionist westerns. True Grit may be set in a world where villains can be relatively chivalrous while heroes can be cheating cowards (or even ex-villains), where killing is an ugly, bloody business, where guns, as well as being instruments of (in)justice and death, often misfire at the worst possible moment, and where cowboys tend to do their own mythmaking – but this is a world that we have already seen before in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), neither of which is exactly outdrawn here, for all the exquisiteness of the Coens’ filmmaking craft.
Likewise the thematic concern with memory and death is hardly new – although here form and content merge, as the film itself is made to seem no less out of step with its times than ‘foolish old man’ Cogburn, or than the ageing spinster Ross in the funereal coda. Indeed, there is a certain gloomy outmodedness built into True Grit, as all its characters, themselves now long dead, are shown looking back to their own glory days long since past, much as the Coens look back to a novel both from and about an earlier era, and to an entire genre whose peak has decidedly come and gone. “Time”, as Ross puts it, “just gets away from us.” It is a memento mori that can never really lose its currency, even as tastes and fashions change, towns rise up, and heroes are buried.
The curse of the Coens is that they are judged against their own impossibly high standards, even when their lesser efforts (say, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty or their 2004 reimagining of The Ladykillers) are estimably idiosyncratic pieces of filmmaking by almost any other measure. Which is why, even though True Grit stands as an impressive deconstruction (and revalorisation) of the western genre, as a vast improvement on Hathaway’s True Grit from the late Sixties, and as a collection of excellent performances, fine technique and oddball moments, it still fails to reach the heady heights of, for example, No Country For Old Men or Barton Fink (1991). That said, it bears up well to multiple viewings, and may well, like its patch-wearing protagonist, actually improve with age. Perhaps, then, it is something of a classic after all – even if it does not quite feel like classic Coens.
© Anton Bitel