The old West was a myth that predated its interpretation in the movies. The scarcity of women in those dusty old towns, for instance, leads us to their inability to be evil in the movies that set those towns in motion – they're just too valuable. Basically, the Western is a myth of values. True Grit is a story that appreciates these values without necessarily approving of them. This is a film made in the spirit of a long tradition, which is surprising coming from the usually more provocative Coen Brothers. But its subtle changes should not be ignored – they contain all its secret truths, and theirs.
To that end, there is a striking evolution in imagery. Henry Hathaway’s version was lit with brilliant clarity and played very little with tones of shadow. The reason is clear: the original True Grit portrayed a blatant time, marred by danger but not mystery. More exactly, the craft of making the original film didn’t call its time period into question. I believe this is the motion picture’s doing more than Charles Portis’ book, which seems to be more critical, from what I’ve read. John Wayne may play Portis’ antihero, I realize it, but Wayne makes him too tall. He makes him seem like a good idea. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and not Wayne-as-Cogburn, following his own grungy dialect back to the novel. Wayne is a proud man shoved into the costume of a bum; Bridges is a blues singer so out of work he’s takin’ to killin’ folk to afford more drink.
The films evoke each of them: Lucien Ballard’s cinematography captured Wayne within the context of his breadth, favoring a kind of reverent brightness. The sky and autumn leaves beamed. Its image of the West seemed adventurous, violent only in the sense that sometimes adventures have to end and bad guys have to go away. Roger Deakins captures the negative of this image in True Grit (2010), as though by reversing the palette he might capture another West. The Coen film is filled with icy blues and harsh, white air. The horses often look like they’re trudging through a post-apocalypse. The Coens revel in the side characters that help them desolate the place. A man rides up wearing a bearskin, bleak and funny like a jingly prophet spirit from a fairytale. Everything he says is a joke, yet I can’t imagine anyone laughing outright (a Coen touch, see Fargo). He offers to sell them a corpse, complete except for the teeth he removed (he’s a travelling dentist). Cogburn actually sold this body to a wandering Native American a few scenes ago: the resources in this world are so limited that people buy things from each other that they’ve already sold to each other, used up just a little bit more on the inevitable trudge towards entropy. They could be selling car fuel and studded belts and it would be no less a wasteland.
The story contains biblical references, but only the Coen version measures the visual universe of the film as biblical. When a boy is killed by his partner, who is killed by Cogburn (food chain of the West), he asks to be sent home and buried proper, promising to meet them on the streets of glory. Cogburn denies him the request posthumously in both versions. But the Coens re-conceive the story as a first-person narrative, and by letting the story’s eyes see the corpses lined up outside their cabin, slumped in the frost, the film acquires a kind of cruel grandeur. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is on a spiritual pilgrimage in the new True Grit. Steinfeld gives her the ability to see the values in the world, trading pretensions to heroism (these belong only to the men) for a sort of refined knowing. She knows she’s losing against the universe but she’s smart enough to keep score. The death of her horse occurs in both versions, as Cogburn breaks him trying to get her to a doctor. But to the Coens this is a passage out of Revelations, a haunting odyssey of breath and sky and shadow. The horse glistens with over-exertion and dies like a holy idol: the childhood goes out of Mattie’s eyes. My mom loves Westerns, yet for this scene alone she never lets True Grit finish while she’s in the room.
Mattie is better than the world she lives in, negotiating around people who like to keep their head down. She demands values out of her wasteland. I’m certain that the scene in which she barters with a nervous shopkeeper is a crowd favorite. It isn’t just about her savvy (there’s a bit of bullshit in the terms of her agreement) but about her inability to be walked on. In the Hathaway version, at one point Cogburn said, “She reminds me of me.” This wouldn’t be as much a compliment in the Bridges version, but you can see it in his eyes anyway.
Bridges is weathered and paunchy; you can see his stench, somehow. Through him, the time period’s bathing habits leap off the screen (to my recollection he wears only two suits of clothes in the entire film, and one only in court). Ever so often you’ll catch a whiff of his breath, or a snide crudity in one of the many stories he rambles off between shootings. Humor permeates the Coen film, a kind of classy desecration. Cogburn isn’t the kind of person you’d want to hang out with, but there’s something startling and sad about knowing he used to be.
It’s piquing to see this version of Mattie navigate the values of her time. Traditions of frontier womanhood hold up – she is their biblical scholar, their medic, and she uses her tiny fingers to roll cigarettes. But from within these values she finds a strong voice, of a girl who’s unattractive, boisterous, and yet a master of her own station. The balanced core of the film is that Mattie doesn’t seem like she’s out of bounds with the men; when the crusty Texas ranger LeBoeuf (here played by Matt Damon) whipped her with a switch in the original film, I distinctly recall reluctantly enjoying seeing her Bible-thumping manner taken down a notch. Steinfeld is working another craft entirely: her red-faced rebellion is well-earned, as Cogburn happens to mention.
The original True Grit contains one of my favorite behind-the-scenes stories, which someone told me over a figurative campfire one time, though even after scouring Wikipedia, I can’t find evidence of its accuracy. So take it as another story, from another person who’s not sure how true it is. For the film’s bombastic finish, Cogburn rides at the Lucky Ned Pepper Gang with the reins of his horse in his teeth, firing off a rifle and a revolver as he gallops across a meadow. The story goes that when Wayne put on his eyepatch, he was supposedly miffed that it was real, prepared to do his own horse-riding but not half-blind. “Get me something I can see out of!” he barked, “Who do you think I am, John Wayne?” I don’t know if it’s true but it rings like truth. He’s acknowledging that he’s a part of reenacting the myth of the West, and so he himself has become a myth. There’s no real time period for the Coens to set upon with their acidic wit; they’re working with a performance of values, within a shared truth. They hold it pretty close to the chest, in the end. The new True Grit is a Western they don’t think is worth hanging out with anymore. But they know it used to be.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Joel Coen (screenplay)
Ethan Coen (screenplay)
Charles Portis (book)
|Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Coburn||Jeff Bridges|
|Mattie Ross||Hailee Steinfeld|
|Tom Chaney||Josh Brolin|
|"Lucky" Ned Pepper||Barry Pepper|
|Bear Man (Dr. Forrester)||Ed Lee Corbin|