Friday Film Focus: True Grit

In the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, Jeff Bridges is not playing the John Wayne role. He’s playing the Jeff Bridges role. Or, more properly…the role created in the enduring novel by Charles Portis (much of the original dialogue can be heard in this film). 

Bridges doesn’t have the archetypal stature of the Duke. Few ever have. But he has here, I believe, an equal screen presence. Wayne wanted his tombstone to read, Feo, Fuerte y Formal (Ugly, Strong and Dignified). He was a handsome, weathered man, but not above a certain understandable vanity. Rooster might be an ornery gunslinger with an eye patch, but Wayne played him wearing a hairpiece and a corset. Bridges occupies the character like a homeless squatter. His interpretation is no doubt closer to the reality of a lawman in those years of the West. How savory can a man be when he lives in saloons and on horseback?

Joel and Ethan Coen, in returning to the novel, have achieved the same thing they did so brilliantly with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. They were remarkably true to the novel while also rendering it unmistakably Coen-esque. Crucially, they have been mindful that this is Mattie Ross’ story. It is about the most significant experience and relationship of her life. It’s a journey on which a stubborn, resolute child from Arkansas witnesses the depraved violence, heroism, and loving comradeship of which humanity is capable. Rooster is a lawman with an office and a room somewhere in town. However for much of the movie, he is on a quest through inauspicious territory to find the man who murdered Mattie’s father.

As told in the novel, Mattie is a plucky young teen with a gaze as level as her hat brim. She hires Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn to track down villain Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She means to kill him for “what he done.” If Bridges comfortably wears the Duke’s shoes, Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is more effective than Kim Darby in the earlier version of the film.  The star of this show is Steinfeld, and that’s appropriate. This is her story, set in motion by her, and narrated by her. The chemistry Bridges achieves with 14 year-old is magical. She, whose toughest challenge may have been keeping a straight face and sustaining the character’s somber demeanor, makes Mattie endearing despite her precocious moral certitude and righteous indignation.

From the early scene when she outmaneuvers a wily horse trader with fast talking, the girl has the film wrapped around her little finger. When she plunges her horse into a river and struggles across to catch them, it is hard not to cry at Mattie’s courage. Later on, there is no question of not crying. What strikes me is that I’m describing the story and the film as if it were simply, if admirably, a good Western. That’s a surprise to me, because this is a film by the Coen Brothers, and this is the first straight genre exercise in their career.

This isn’t a Coen Brothers film in the sense that we usually use those words. It’s not eccentric, quirky, wry, or flaky. It’s as if these two men, who have devised some of the most original films of our time, reached a point where they decided to coast on the sheer pleasure of good old straightforward artistry. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper have weight and resonance in supporting roles. Damon is LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who comes along for a time to track Tom Chaney. Glen Campbell had the role earlier, and was right for the tone of that film. Damon plays it on a more ominous note. His LaBoeuf isn’t sidekick material.

Damon fits gracefully into the Coen company as the cocky galoot who attaches himself to Mattie’s undertaking. As Tom Chaney, Brolin is a complete and unadulterated villain, a rattlesnake who would as soon shoot Mattie as Rooster. Barry Pepper is a revolting treat as outlaw ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper. He gets the legendary scene, taunting Rooster with “Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”.

The film’s landscapes are all in Texas. Although some are beautiful, many are as harsh and threatening as the badlands described by Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry. British cinematographer Roger Deakins, who by now is collaboratively a third Coen brother, uses the novel’s winter setting to glorious advantage. To this day, I’m quite surprised the Coens made this film. It’s so unlike their other work, except in quality. Instead of saying that now I hope they get back to making “Coen Brothers films,” I’m inclined to speculate on what other genres they might approach in this spirit. 

Image Source: The Atlantic