by Richard von Busack
THE COEN brothers’ True Grit is a story of retribution. Mattie Ross (Haile Steinfeld) is a self-assured 14-year-old. She arrives in Fort Smith, Ark., in the early 1880s to track down the hired hand who murdered her father.
As for the killer, Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin), he “lit out for the territory,” says the sheriff, as if describing a fugitive named Finn. The sheriff lists some U.S. marshals who could track Cheney. Mattie chooses Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges): ruthless and dead to fear, though often dead to the world. “He likes to pull a cork,” says the sheriff.
First seen in the courtroom, Cogburn is a greasy-haired, one-eyed man pushing 60. There’s winter light from the windows behind him, and a 3-gallon cuspidor at his feet. Bridges lulls us with his take on the part—a bass-voiced good old boy, who sounds like Arkansas’ Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Note the eccentric pronunciation: “Snike” for the reptile, “dronk” describing the state Cogburn is often in.
The early scenes of Mattie and Rooster together play out like a Duel of the Orsons. Steinfeld has the smooth-faced, sotto voce way of the young Welles, the actor who made every comment sound like an aside to the audience. Grumbling Rooster resembles Old Welles, especially Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.
Mattie offers the marshal a $50 reward to cross into the Choctaw lands to retrieve Cheney. While waiting for his decision, Mattie encounters LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a fancy, buckskin-covered ranger who is seeking Cheney for a previous murder down in Texas.
The three, reluctantly matched, discover that Cheney has thrown in with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, displaying almost courtly lucklessness). The pursuers draw closer to Cheney but feud along the way—about the Civil War, about Texas metaphysics, about Cogburn’s drinking. Mattie’s unpolished honesty brings out the best in both, the part that is larger than life.
True Grit is laden with bizarre comedy, with scenes like the arrival of a strange bear-man (Ed Corbin), in a passage about the worth of a dead body. Then there’s the moment of Mattie taking in the sight of railway timbers stacked where the rails end in Fort Smith—a signal that we’re at the end of the road. Scenes like this make True Grit a version of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man that works, a comic frontier tale free of the hipster burlesque and mixed metaphors.
True Grit is the first really satisfying Western in many years. The film takes the only approach that can be taken to a Western in 2010: a postmodern approach, with awareness of the decades of Western films before it. Yet this True Grit preserves the simple, satisfying pleasures that make the Western live. (And it’s terribly exciting to think how younger viewers, Lebowski fans, who don’t customarily watch Westerns, are going to see this as their first one.)
Cinema has been keeping the Western going in disguise—for instance, the epic of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (significantly, Aragorn is called a "ranger”). The Coens’ prestige hit No Country for Old Men had some of the elements of a Western, but the genuflecting approach to the mirthless, reactionary Cormac McCarthy book makes it a hard film to rewatch.
The 1968 Charles Portis novel that is the source for True Grit is a kind of classic. In Ed Park’s 2003 article on Portis for The Believer, Park quotes Roy Blount Jr. as saying, “Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy, but he’d rather be funny.” Blount’s assessment is supposed to be a compliment, but the judgment depresses me, as if someone said, “Mark Twain could have been Faulkner, but he decided to go for the laughs.”
The lack of humor in McCarthy is only one reason he’s dreadfully oversold as a writer. Portis has more common sense, more of a clear handle on how violence rises up fast and is quelled. He is less bloody-minded, less dazzled by Western lore than McCarthy. Portis’ “hippophilia,” to use a term in B.R. Meyers critique of McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, comes across as much more attuned to the real animal.
Bridges has been on horseback as far back as Bad Company (1972), but what followed wasn’t a career like John Wayne’s. Bridges has delivered a string of ’60s fogbound malcontents and Southern California slouches, surfers and stoners gone to seed—gentle men who often weren’t gentlemen.
Rooster Cogburn is as delicious a part as Long John Silver. Just because it was done indelibly 40 years ago is no reason to bar actors forever from it. True Grit was John Wayne’s finest work, and Wayne knew it. He never did anything better than the campfire scene in the 1969 film, when Rooster is talking about his wife and kid back in Cairo, Ill.
Bridges does the same monologue conversationally as he rides, since his Cogburn likes to fill the frontier void with talk. This True Grit is not a movie about strong silent men. And Bridges does things that John Wayne wasn’t capable of as an actor—he expresses the desperate underside of a bluff, a rowdier level of buffoonery and a quitter’s despair.
Even if Wayne was short of breath and stout in 1969, he was indomitable. The last mounted leap over a graveyard fence showed us the actor’s bid for immortality. In this True Grit, Bridges shows us something truer: mortality, the gravity of killing and being killed. The Coens have the bravery to deliver the downbeat coda to this story left out in 1969. It increases the stature of this film, its depth, beauty and sadness.
Composer Carter Burwell reworks solemn old hymns on piano, at the risk sometimes of making the film sound like a Ken Burns documentary. As if in tribute to Elmer Bernstein, who scored the 1969 version, Burwell goes sweeping right into the place where this movie meets its predecessor: the gallant scene of Mattie fording a river on her horse Little Blackie.
True Grit delivers a flawless match of rich performances and austere visuals, with haunted, cold-weather photography by the always-remarkable Roger Deakins. The Coens’ adaptation paints in some corners the original film neglected; the coda alone, about the passage of time, about frontier loneliness and the end of the West, gives this movie a final sting. One admires the Coens’ taste for turning an object into something as rich with meaning as a still life: Mattie’s hands folding a newspaper into her father's hat band to make it tight enough to wear, or unrolling the blanket that contains the dead man’s few possessions, or the glow of a bowl of red apples in a dark hallway—the last light of civilization before Mattie herself lights out for the territory.
I guess I had hoped for something more Oklahoman in the visuals, some more blackjack trees and snags and swamps. The Fort Smith scenes were shot near Austin; the rest of the film unspools in traditional postmodern Western turf, in the high desert in New Mexico. This True Grit is drier, rawer and colder-looking than the 1969 version with its elegiac landscapes by Lucien Ballard, shot in the California Sierras and the Rockies.
Still, it is an oddly Christmassy film. See, for instance, the final ride under frozen stars, the slight blowing snow around watchful figures, mounted and motionless; note the browned, daguerreotype tones, in which the spot of color is Jeff Bridges’ single blazing blue eye.