The Coen Brothers' True Grit, from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and following several film versions of the adventures of drunken rogue Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, most notably 1969's with John Wayne's solid, and sole Oscar-winning role, is a modern Western with great performances, surprising humor, and real depth. (I read the novel long ago and shall revisit it soon.)
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld/Elizabeth Marvel) narrates this film, as in the novel, so I take it that the whole film should be viewed that way, that is, as dependent upon her point of view. Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed her father. She finds the scariest man she can find to go after him, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, last year's Best Actor for Crazy Heart). She aims to "see the thing done" and will go with him into the Indian Territory. Mattie's single-mindedness in her revenge quest is the defining feature of True Grit. Steinfeld plays it up, and is superb in her depiction of a headstrong young girl, idealistic, intelligent, morbid, righteous, outraged, civilizing, inevitable. Marvel is excellent and indispensable to this portrayal as well. No less than Steinfeld, she has to sell the irony of her telling her own at-times distinctly unheroic hero story like the Old Testament Book of Judges. Marvel's inflections, mannerisms and stark silhouette as the older Mattie have to bear the weight of prelude and coda to an outsized tale, and they do. This frame also creates much of the ironic humor laced throughout the film, in a few deft strokes providing multiple contrasts to events of the main plot.
When we first see Cogburn (his having been previously heard from), he's in Judge Parker's court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, around 1878, booming out details of a violent confrontation he had apprehending some thieves of the troublesome Wharton clan. He already looks like a legend, busted-up, eye-patched, red-nosed. He looks like a Hogarth cartoon of a diseased and deadly rogue. Mattie is entranced, and sold. She will have Cogburn by hook or by crook (or $50 ready cash, $50 upon the disposition of Chaney). Without the cash, as is repeatedly emphasized, nobody would be pursuing Chaney for the murder of Farmer Frank Ross of Dardenelle, Yell County. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, adding to a great year with Green Zone and Hereafter, excellent) is pursuing him on another matter.
The film this one is truly haunted by, like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear or Michael Caton-Jones's This Boy's Life, is not the 1969 version of this story, but Charles Laughton's 1955 The Night of the Hunter, based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb, which also features themes of parental murder, deadly greed and banditry, unrelenting conflict between good and evil starkly drawn, and, yes, revenge.
Before this film has rightly started, the music starts, haltingly, on a piano, the melodic hymn Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum duet on in the velvety crashing denouement of The Night of the Hunter, and it recurs, interspersed with arrangements of other popular American religious songs and hymns like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Bringing in the Sheaves" as the reels unspool. The score is ingenious and mostly quite effective, but listen and see if there aren't a few times when you feel as I did that the use of these particular themes was just repetitive, or perhaps even counterproductive to its dramatic moment.
But while The Night of the Hunter concerned children orphaned by their own pious, thieving, murderous stepfather, fleeing his depradations into the wilderness, True Grit is about a child who flees her own home life to pursue the half-wit who killed her father, putting herself and (many) others in danger. She wants revenge, however ridiculous the efforts to obtain it may become. She's not forced into facing danger for her own self-protection like the innocent and younger children in Hunter. She writes to her mother that she is "about to embark on a great adventure." Mattie Ross is the relentless hunter here. And her quest is marked with similar piety and spooky resolve as what moves Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell. Later, there's another Night of the Hunter moment, a "flight of the children" when Cogburn and Mattie flee for her life. It doesn't take place on a boat, but astride a black pony, and its tree canopies, starry skies, night wonder sounds of croaking frogs and chirping crickets, and trance-like, hallucinatory rhythm and contrasts seem to reference this scene from the 1955 film fairly directly.
One of the chief pleasures of the film is the contrasting textures of Cogburn's (let's admit it) Karl Childers-esque Missouri-Arkansas bray with Mattie's more-literate Southern schoolgirl accent, LaBoeuf's Virginia-Texas drawl (sometimes with defects) or Lawyer Goudy's (Joe Stevens, "Medium," The Alamo ) sneaky, smoky Texan Tennessee waltz on cross-examination. Candyce Hinkle also has a gracious real-Arkansan trill as the landlady of the Monarch Boardinghouse, and Barry Pepper's hoarse and harassed noble rasp as bandit king Lucky Ned Pepper is also eminently listenable. Make no mistake, this is a Southern Western. The film's dialogue is an admirable treasure trove of antiquated and regional American English usage, much of which is straight from Portis, as it was in the 1969 Grit, but moreso. Josh Brolin is a truly menacing psychopath played as a verbose and brutal Bluto. His pleas for a ride when horses are scarce are as pathetic as what follows, and it's ridiculous and believable at the same time. The Coens love a good Bluto (see Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, etc., there's even another one here in Paul Rae's wonderful minor gangster Emmett Quincy), and Brolin's Chaney is as dumb, amusing and frightening an iteration as they come.
All the little details, jokes, period technology, speech and attitudes--harsh realities of violence and survival juxtaposed with Mattie's Biblical idealism and pragmatic outlook--they all add up to a grand yet subtle entertainment. There is sometimes an unevenness of tone which seems almost an impossible-to-resolve consequence of the film's narrative framing. But tinker in one place, and it might upset or exacerbate some other difficulty of the intricate, and ultimately quite successful whole. I found this framing, faithful to the novel, to be indispensable. It firmly places this film as about the throes of a Wild West, and Mattie Ross's place in that. Watch also for a complex interplay of the use of items as both tools and weapons, especially ropes, knives, guns, the law, animals, people. Mattie helps kill the Old Southern West she adventures in by looking for justice in it, and she never stops, she just keeps twisting the knife by the rules she learnt there. There're good things and bad things about that, few easy, and they don't stop, either.
This is a great, grand, funny, smart and moving film, maybe the best Western since John Hillcoat's 2005 Australian play on Heart of Darkness, The Proposition. It's perfect in many ways, and I would not object to acting awards for Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon, Brolin, Barry Pepper or Marvel, or other awards, especially for the screenplay, fine-grained cinematography by the legendary Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, or the film overall. If you like to go to the movies, here is one for you. I'm glad to say I've seen it several times myself already (okay, 14 times, that's right I said it), and could go again for another viewing of this bright, funny rip-roarer.
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