30 Years of Coens: True Grit

Have girl, will travel

Paramount Pictures

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on True Grit  (2010)

• Several readers of my entry on No Country for Old Men made the case that the film was less a straightforward Coens picture than a de facto collaboration between the brothers and Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel on which it was based. And it’s true to a certain extent: The Coens’ previous “adaptations” had been at best loose homages to Homer, Hammett, Chandler, Sturges, et al., in contrast to No Country, which was a generally faithful rendering of McCarthy’s original. That said, their respective artistic visions proved so deeply congruent that the movie has always felt entirely “Coens” to me; McCarthy’s template seemed to unfetter the brothers’ gift, not to muddy it. The same is not quite true of True Grit, another handsome, well-wrought adaptation—in this case, of the 1968 Western by Charles Portis—but one in which novelist and filmmakers seem less in sync. (My original review is here.)

True Grit followed the Coens’ typical pattern (occasionally adjusted in light of financing issues and casting availability) of alternating comedy with drama, and more-commercial with less-commercial projects. Following the overwhelming success of No Country—which supplied them with both a Best Picture statuette and their largest box office to date—the Coens had opted for the pitch-black humor of Burn After Reading and the insular artiness of A Serious Man (their second-lowest-grossing feature, after The Hudsucker Proxy). True Grit, by contrast, was a substantial commercial venture: a period Western with an almost $40 million budget and a star, Jeff Bridges, who’d just won an Oscar for Best Actor. The gamble—which also re-teamed the Coens with No Country producer Scott Rudin—paid off handsomely: True Grit grossed more than twice as much as any of their other films and received Academy Award nominations in a remarkable 10 categories. The fact that it ultimately won none, however, suggests that for all the film’s estimable qualities, something didn’t quite gel.

• Let’s begin with the good. Roger Deakins, shooting his 11th feature for the Coens—and the fifth to earn him an Oscar nomination—offers a powerful reminder of the visual glory of the Western, of riders on horseback and the wide, empty vistas that roll out before them. (Though the story is set in Arkansas and what would become Oklahoma, the Coens allowed themselves an unusual degree of artistic license by filming in New Mexico.) For the score, Carter Burwell completed his magnificent trifecta, begun with Miller’s Crossing and Fargo, based on traditional sources. And while not quite so entrancing as the former or inventive as the latter, the True Grit score—which draws its central motif from the 1887 hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”—is nonetheless sad, and sweet, and beautiful. The cinematography and score entwine elegantly in the movie’s opening, an inversion of the first shot of Fargo in which blackness gradually gives way to the golden glow of lamps on a front porch.

• Bridges, while not so memorable as he was as the Dude in The Big Lebowski, makes for a good ornery old cuss as U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn—a part made iconic by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 adaptation—even if the performance is somewhat familiar, and a close cousin to the gifted-man-hobbled-by-drink role that won him his Oscar for Crazy Heart the year before. And Matt Damon, who costars as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced, wonderfully, “La-Beef”) again earns his spurs as the humblest movie star working today. I can’t think of any other actor of his stature so generous with his costars, so content to cede center stage. Here’s hoping there are other collaborations with the Coens in his future.

• But the central character in the film is 14-year-old Mattie Ross, played by then-13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. It is Mattie who, in a quest to bring to justice her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), enlists Cogburn’s aid and sets the central manhunt in motion. Steinfeld is very good, but the extreme precocity of Mattie is a challenging sell. In the 1969 adaptation, the character was played by Kim Darby, then in her early 20s. The fact that she was never remotely plausible as a 14-year-old ironically made her that much more plausible as the wise-beyond-her-years instigator of the film’s events. Steinfeld is not helped by the fact that her hyper-articulate patter cannot help but recall past Coens characters such as Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough and George Clooney’s Everett McGill—and unlike theirs, her role is not meant to be a comic caricature. Indeed the Coens’ decision to make True Grit, and to cast a young actress in the role, is a surprising one, given how allergic they have been to child characters throughout their career. Kids occasionally appear as diminutive monsters (Dot and Glen’s brood of vandals, Johnny Caspar’s dim-witted butterball) or in ancillary roles (as in Fargo and A Serious Man). But Coens characters are typically childless to a remarkable degree. Seen in that light, perhaps True Grit is not surprising at all: It gave the Coens an opportunity to cast a child who would perform functionally as an adult. Despite Steinfeld’s best efforts, Mattie always plays as a “character,” rather than a genuine human being.

• Which brings us back to the Coens-Portis match. As a result of the earnest 1969 adaptation of True Grit, Portis is remembered as more of a sentimentalist than he was. But one needn’t be much of a sentimentalist to be more sentimental than the Coens, and that variance keeps the film from ever quite finding its proper key. Nowhere is this more evident than in the melodramatic swirl of the climax, in which, over the course of just a few minutes, LaBoeuf saves Mattie from strangulation by Chaney; LaBoeuf saves Cogburn from being shot by Lucky Ned (a very good Barry Pepper); and Mattie saves LaBoeuf and herself from pummeling by Chaney—only to fall immediately into a pit of snakes and need rescuing again by Cogburn. This is High Hollywood Hoke of the kind the Coens would normally satirize, but here they render it straight-faced. The movie never entirely recovers, despite the strong sequence in which Bridges rides a horse to death to save Mattie, and the bittersweet, years-later coda that had been left out of the 1969 version. Is True Grit a very good film? Absolutely. But it’s not a great one and, along with Intolerable Cruelty, it may be the most conventional and least Coens-y of the Coens’ pictures. Much as I’d like to rate it higher, something has to fill out the lower rungs when ranking the brothers’ exceptional oeuvre.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank True Grit among Coens films: #12

Where I rank its score, by Carter Burwell, among Coens scores by Carter Burwell: #4

Best line: “Never shot nobody that didn’t ask for it.”

Best visual: That opening shot of the lit porch, and the body lying in front of it

Best sound: The click of LaBoeuf’s spurs

Notable locales: Arkansas

Notable Influences: Charles Portis

Dream sequence(s): No

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Next up: Inside Llewyn Davis