All Good Things
By Justin Stewart
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., Paramount Pictures
The early teaser of True Grit that played before last summer’s Inception presented staccato shots of glowering cowboys raising heads and six-shooters from the shadows, cocking them at quivering defenseless victims, and muttering cryptic macho dialogue. It promised “retribution” come Christmas, and seemingly a return to the godless, pitiless worldview of No Country for Old Men. Obviously trailers can’t be trusted, especially when tailored to the audience of the accompanying feature, but if True Grit ended up as mean-to-the-bone as advertised, it seemed a counterintuitive choice for Paramount to release during a holiday week. Yet True Grit is the Coens’ straightest adaptation yet, and the original Charles Portis novel is both a comedy and young adult adventure story before it is a violent revenge tale or even a western. And while fingers do get sliced off and characters are shot point blank in the face, the well-meaning True Grit is a surprisingly principled and square family option for the holidays.
And there’s nothing wrong with its general lack of ambition, as long as you weren’t expecting it to compare with the remarkable trifecta of No Country, the underrated Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, in which they tapped new reservoirs of personal engagement and balanced it with their usual idiosyncratic ironic mockery. Fans of the book, the Coens seem only to have wanted to recreate it with some of their favorite actors and familiar collaborators, such as cinematographer Roger Deakins and score composer Carter Burwell. It’s possible that recent successes have spoiled the filmmakers’ fans; No Country followed the unpopular The Ladykillers and a three-year drought, which elevated the volume of the praise the 2007 Cormac McCarthy adaptation received. If True Grit were made by anyone else, complaints of slightness would be caviling. The material is amusing and the performances are full of life, but there’s a nagging sense of a drop in distinctiveness—but is it only because we now come to expect a revelation?
Henry Hathaway got the first whack at Portis’s novel in the 1969 version starring John Wayne. It’s finely crafted and rousing, and it’s fun to watch a more flawed than usual Wayne character, but the Coens are better attuned to what made the novel unique—its deadpan humor and near-experimental style of “hillbilly Shakespeare” dialogue, which broke from realism with an affectionate ironic distance. Without using contractions, characters speak lines like “She has got you buffaloed with her saucy ways,” and use slang like “hoorawed” and “Texas brush-popper.” It’s like this because the narrator is a serious-minded spinster, and she’s relating her experience as a 14-year-old in circa-1860 western Arkansas out to avenge her murdered father.
Here, the girl, Mattie Ross, is played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who’s a fine-looking young actress despite her character being called “unattractive to boot” and “beaten by the ugly stick.” Mattie’s unbudging hard-headedness is established early as she outmaneuvers an auctioneer (Dakin Matthews) in Fort Smith, and locates the deputy marshal with the most “grit,” Rooster Cogburn, whom she pays to help track down her father’s killer, Tom Chaney. The fat, one-eyed, half-drunk Rooster (“Fear doesn’t enter into his thinking”) finally agrees, and he’s joined by a dandy Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). LaBoeuf is long on Chaney’s trail for the murder of a Texas senator (and his dog). The two are loath to let Mattie accompany them, but she’s stubborn, and proves her mettle with her pony by fording the river they’d just been ferried across.
The Oscar that Wayne was given for his Rooster Cogburn was in part a symbolic recognition for career-long services rendered, and the casting of Jeff Bridges here at times feels like a similar attempt at actor mythologizing, turning him into a “national treasure,” as David Thomson worried about in a recent article on the actor in the Guardian. Though the Dude, from Bridges and the Coens’ previous team-up, The Big Lebowski, would be no match for Rooster in a fight, there’s a shared noble slovenliness. The slim, fast-on-his-feet Bridges of stuff like Fat City, Against All Odds, and 8 Million Ways to Die has been replaced by the new docile, lumpy Papa Bear from this and Crazy Heart (though a shaved head went a long way in Iron Man). That’s just aging, perhaps, and the new Bridges still has an uncanny way with line deliveries; he cuts his arguments with LaBoeuf short by saying they’re “like women talking.”
True Grit’s funniest scenes are these tiffs between Bridges and Damon, and the latter is particularly adept at teasing out the ridiculousness of his “ever stalwart,” boasting Texas ranger, who brags about being so thirsty once he “was glad” to drink out of a hoof print. When Rooster defends his dubious wartime credentials, LaBoeuf mocks him for saying he served alongside Confederate “Captain” William Quantrill, by most accounts a lawless, child-murdering bushwhacker. If anything, there’s not enough Damon—the Coen brothers have removed LaBoeuf from some scenes, like the raid on a shanty that provides True Grit’s bloodiest moments. Another Coen alum, Josh Brolin, returns as the killer Chaney, and Brolin nails the dumbness of the man kowtowed by his meaner partner, Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, chewing scenery with yellowed and rabbit-like false teeth).
In one of his mumbling monologues, Rooster explains the breakup of his marriage: “My wife did not crave the society of my river friends.” He might step outside of the law book as an Old West Dirty Harry whose actions can’t always be justified, but his simple, grizzled charm goes a long way—and his protective loyalty to Mattie leaves him wholly sympathetic. Plain grizzledness like that is the film’s greatest asset, and Deakins balances it with some pretty, genre-required cowboys-in-the-landscape long shots. Burwell’s score incorporates time-specific hymns, but much of it has a hackneyed, “let’s go on an adventure” blandness that all too fittingly mirrors the film’s routine ambitions. As a competent recreation of a good book, True Grit is a success, but as a return to the terrain of their last unqualified success (an adaptation of a book set in the Southwest), the enterprise feels slightly cynical. The Coen brothers haven’t sold out, but they’re surely coasting.