The Coen brothers celebrate the heroes of the old frontier—and the new—in their new film, True Grit.
True Grit isn’t what you’re expecting.
First of all, it’s not so much a remake of the original 1968 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar. Really, it’s another adaptation of the original Charles Portis novel, one that retains a whole lot more of the novel’s plotting and dusty Shakespearean dialogue. And secondly, the film has far more in common with the pastoral tone of westerns by John Ford or Fred Zinnemann than it does with the unremitting doom and gloom of the post-Unforgiven western, despite what the smash cuts and bone-rattling Johnny Cash song of the trailer might imply. It’s also quite unlike anything the Coens have ever done before.
That’s not an unremarkable point. The Coen brothers have an inimitable style, recognizable to viewers even remotely familiar with their work. Everything in their films, from the dialogue to the quality of performances they get out of their actors, is distinctively Coen-esque. True Grit certainly bears the markings of their style, but the film is more of a straightforward genre exercise than anything else in their oeuvre.
Grit follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) as she attempts to track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and see him hanged in Arkansas. She hires delightfully crusty U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to do the actual tracking, and attempts to keep Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) from bringing Chaney back to Texas.
Mattie’s plucky for sure—as a wonderfully heated exchange with a local businessman over some horses early in the film proves. It’s no surprise then that she tries to persuade the Marshal to take her along on the search. Cogburn, who ascribes to the classic “shoot first, ask later” paradigm and looks like he’s gone years without a bath, isn’t happy.
Here we have a classic Western setup: the symbol of civilization (Mattie’s main problem-solving tactic is to threaten to sue people) is forced to come face-to-face with the lawless brutality of the open range (not only Chaney, but Cogburn himself). John Ford used a similar concept in 1946’s My Darling Clementine, and so did Zinnemann in 1952’s High Noon. It’s a well-worn trope in the genre, and it’s no surprise that the Coens would go back to the well in this situation, as they did with The Big Lebowski’s riff on The Big Sleep.
This is still a Coen brothers’ movie, though, and something has to be off. Here, we’re given a far more robust role for the female lead as compared with the classic Westerns. In a film featuring some of the best actors working today, Steinfeld’s role is by far the most dominant—and she gamely rises to the occasion, handling her character’s mix of childish foolhardiness and genuine bravery with ease. The civilization Mattie represents ends up triumphing over the sere landscape, as the coda (30 years later) indicates. Despite her age, gender, and background, Mattie holds her own quite well against the challenges of the frontier.
But the girl still ends up saved by the marshal, who in classic Hollywood fashion turns out not to be such a bad guy after all. True Grit, then, doesn’t entirely flip the script on the original western structure. It gives us a female heroine whose stately manners foreshadow the coming of the modern era, despite her reliance on Cogburn’s old-frontier brand of justice.
So what have we learned? That the frontier is no place for a lady? That women are the better angels to the devils of men? That the heroism of cowboys trumps their callous methods? That civilization is an inexorable march forward? The Coens have been telling great stories that lack an obvious moral for their entire career. So maybe True Grit is exactly what you’re expecting, if you know what you’re looking for.
—Photo via Filmofilia.com