The Coens open True Grit at night with a slow zoom in on a slain man lying just off a softly lit porch, being blanketed by snowfall. The voice-over is Mattie Ross, speaking to the audience from nearly three decades in the future. She describes how her father was shot by Tom Chaney and fled off with her father’s horse and two California gold pieces. She was determined to see Mr. Chaney pay for his cold-blooded act. Her voice is monotone but her passion to extract revenge is beyond vivid.
This True Grit is not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne picture, but a new cinematic interpretation of the novel by Charles Portis. It was the language in the book that drew the Coens to this project. Their love of words was the catalyst and it combines wonderfully with their ability to bring their unusual brand of “theater of the mind” to celluloid. The Coens benefited from sticking with Portis’ classic story line and carefully crafted scenes. Some Coen films take us over speed bumps as they climax, oftentimes ending abruptly after having been so carefully paced, leaving us perplexed, even unsatisfied. Not the case here. The finished product works so well on so many levels and it will be a force to be reckoned with come Oscar night.
After the opening set-up the rest of the picture is placed squarely on the shoulders of 14 year old Mattie Ross, played with spunk and determination by newcomer Haillee Steinfeld. “She” is the real True Grit in this story. On errand to reclaim her father’s body, she inquires about who she might hire to bring Chaney to justice. She is drawn to Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by a gravelly and comical Jeff Bridges. A deal is struck and the journey into the Choctaw Nation begins. Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) has been trying to catch Chaney for some time and joins the makeshift posse. Seems Chaney is wanted in Texas and a substantial reward awaits. It’s a simple story really, but the telling of it is what makes True Grit special.
It’s full of symbolism and subtle foreshadowing—rope and snakes—in classic western style, but subtly updated both visually and sonically. It’s shot on a broad canvas, but the traveling transitions employ a liberal use of dissolves that crisscross the screen, trampling on the cinematographer’s sacred “line.” The set design and locations combined with thoughtful camera choices enables us to go beyond peering into this past time toward living in it with them. All that is incredible, but the language and how the actors deliver it is nothing short of astonishing. Artful diction (Bridges excluded) coupled with precise timing make this experience. Everyone from the main characters, including the bandits, to a stable boy speaks with eloquence and wit. There’s lots of humor, but only the audience laughs. And it’s clean language. I counted only 8 instances of swear words.
The Portis-Coen west is surprisingly polite, not as well policed as it should be, but it definitely had a code of justice, and there was law. This is explored twice. First in a courtroom scene where Cogburn is giving testimony, and in a triple hanging, both expose a desentizization to violence that must have been all too common in those days.
The journey brings them across a hanged man, a dentist dressed in a bear skin, including the head (the Coens only real quirk) and frequent exchanges between Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Damon’s character was official and formal. He didn’t have Cogburn’s patience or experience and their styles clashed, but they ended up working together well as a team, once the crucial moment appeared. The writing is the dominant element and I can assure you it will win the Oscar for screenplay based on another medium. (Update post Oscar: Wrong again.)
Crackling campfire. It is raining. The campfire is roughly canopied by a hide draped at a cant over a pair of tree branches. Mattie pours hot water from a kettle into a large tin cup holding a corn dodger. She takes a fork and starts mashing the dodger into mush. LaBoeuf sits before the fire, coat over his head, one hand on his jaw, which is swollen.
LABOEUF: Cogburn does not want me eating out of his store.
MATTIE: That is silly. You have not eaten the whole day, and it is my store, not his.
ROOSTER: Let him starve!
Rooster, bellicose, stumbles to the fire with a few thin branches. As he leans in toward the fire the water draining off the low edge of the canopy drums onto his neck. He waves a hand back at it like a man swatting flies.
He does not track! He does not shoot — except at foodstuffs! —
LABOEUF: That wazh your idea.
ROOSTER: — He does not contribute! Millstone, with opinions! He is a man who walks in front of bullets!
Rooster sits heavily, a stretching leg kicking away an empty bottle. Rain patters on his hat.…
He is a drag-brake for horses!
MATTIE: Mr. LeBoeuf drew single-handed upon the Lucky Ned Pepper Gang while we fired safely from cover, like a band of sly Injuns!
MATTIE: It is unfair to indict a man when his jaw is swollen and tongue mangled and who is therefore unable to rise to his own defense!
LABOEUF: I can thpeak for mythelf. I am hardly obliged to anther the ravingth of a drunkard. It ith beneath me.
He rises and starts gathering his things.
… I shall make my own camp elthwhere. It ith you who have nothing to offer, Khoghburn. A shad picture indeed. Thish izh no longer a manhunt, it izh a debauch. The Texath ranger preththeth on alone.
ROOSTER: Take the girl! I bow out!
LABOEUF: A fine thing to deshide once you have brought her into the middle of the Choctaw Nation.
ROOSTER: I bow out! I wash my hands!
MATTIE: Gentlemen, we cannot fall out in this fashion, so close to our goal, with Tom Chaney nearly in hand!
ROOSTER: In hand?! If he is not in a shallow grave, somewhere between here and Fort Smith, he is gone! Long gone! Thanks to Mr. LaBoeuf, we missed our shot! We have barked, and the birds have flown! Gone, gone, gone! Lucky Ned and his cohort, gone! Your $50, gone! Gone, the whiskey seized in evidence! The trail is cold, if ever there was one! I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpy in trousers — and a nincompoop! Well, Mr. LaBoeuf can wander the Choctaw Nation for as long as he likes; perhaps the local Indians will take him in and honor his gibberings by making him chief! You, sister, may go where you like! I return home! Our engagement is terminated! I bow out!
Eventually they are granted their wish and encounter Chaney (Josh Brolin) who is traveling with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang. The Chaney character turns out to be a weasel and blabbers on about how he’s a victim of his environment. Pathetic. Hell, I wanted to shoot him. We see both good and evil come out of nowhere in a quick turn of events that allows Mattie to have her opportunity at punishment. But the choice she makes comes with a stiff price that she forever pays, every day of her life both physically and psychologically.
The sturdy, reliable western landscape painted for us up until now is suddenly transformed as Cogburn rushes Mattie to a doctor aboard her horse Little Blackie. The soft daylight dissolves are erased by the blackness of the night, lit by a sea of stars only visible “out there.” Reuben pushes the horse to the limit to save Mattie. Yet another character with grit.
As the visuals build, so do does Carter Burwell’s spiritual score. It’s simple music actually, but triples in complexity when paired with Roger Deakins’ striking lens. In the liner notes for the score, Burwell writes:
Ethan and Joel and I had the same idea. A score rooted in 19th-century hymns. The songs Mattie would sing if she had time for such frivolity. Our model was the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” composed in 1888 by Anthony Showalter, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, and used memorably in the film The Night of the Hunter. This together with other hymns of the period, forms the backbone of the score, which grows from church piano to orchestra as Mattie gets farther and farther from home.
We don’t know if Mattie ever enjoyed her life or got the satisfaction she so desperately sought from Chaney’s fate. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Highly recommended.
The official True Grit web site can be visited here. I have no opinion on it as none of the links worked for me on my Safari browser.
Update January 23, 2011
In today’s New York Times (Opinion section from January 23, 2011), Frank Rich wrote an insightful piece about why True Grit is so successful at the box office. As usual he is at the crossroads of art and culture. Fascinating reading, The One-Eyed Man is King.
Updated January 26, 2011
I downloaded a True Grit app yesterday for my iPad. It’s contains 63 photos taken by Jeff Bridges during the filming of the movie. He scribes personal notes below some of the photos. A nice way to see behind the camera from the point of view of the lead actor. Also links out to find tickets and showtimes. Go to the iTunes store and search on True Grit. It’s FREE.
Graphics courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Screenplay excerpt belongs to Joel and Ethan Coen, copied from The New York Times