True Grit (2010) by Joel and Ethan Coen
Retro Review by Lydia Creech
“People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the winter time to avenge her father’s blood. But it did happen.”
Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit tells the tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and her quest to bring “the coward Tom Chaney” to justice for her father’s murder. She enlists the help of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man she hears has “true grit.” It is NOT a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne (though, Mark Kermode claims the Coens did lift aspects of Rooster Cogburn’s costuming from that film, specifically the eye patch). Rather, the Coens are re-adapting the Charles Portis novel. The result is a much closer telling of the story, but with some added Coen touches.
The first Coen touch is that this film is incredibly funny. Part of the humor arises from the careful preservation of the sort of Biblical, King Jamesian language of the book. The actors all excel with the difficult and fast paced dialogue, especially the young Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld absolutely carries the film. The Wayne version reduces Mattie Ross to the role of plucky side-kick, but in the Coen revival, she is rightly restored to the central role. Mattie Ross is the sort of precious character that the Coens might normally make fun of, but she is also brave and steadfast and has “grit” in her own right. It takes a talented actress to pull off both of these aspects, and Steinfeld (actually 14 years old at the time) more than rises to the task. Also, she frequently gets the best lines in the film and delivers them hilariously straight-faced.
The second Coen touch is their musical collaboration with composer Carter Burwell, who orchestrates versions of several period-appropriate hymns, most notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Burwell’s score is both soaring (for the most cinematic moments) and sparse (often just the melody picked out on a piano), which is fantastically atmospheric and thematically relevant. The Coens have already explored the use of religious music juxtaposed against hardship (2000’s O Brother Where Art Thou, although that score was complied by their other frequent collaborator, T. Bone Burnett), and once again their thematic obsessions inform their art.
Finally, it's important to address the fact that the Coens can sometimes be seen as cruel and cold toward their characters--in True Grit and many of their other works, this is a reflection of their interest in the sort of Old Testament style justice and fate. The pairing of the hymns (NEW TESTAMENT, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”) with a tale of righteous revenge (decidedly an Old Testament idea--“eye for an eye” and all) is just the sort of sensibility the Coens bring to all their films. They change the fate of Mattie and Rooster from the Wayne film (sticking to the book’s original ending), in which **SPOILERS**: Mattie loses an arm and also never sees Rooster again.
As tragic as it is, I love this ending. It brings weight to what would otherwise be just another rip-roaring adventure Western, where the violence doesn’t have consequences and the good guys always win (see: the Wayne version). Here, the good guys do win (Mattie gets to shoot Chaney in the chest), but it comes at a considerable sacrifice. Mattie wishes the lawful prosecution of Chaney for her father’s murder, but, barring that, takes matters into her own hands and becomes a murderer herself. The Coens don’t let this moment just fly. Though they very clearly have enormous reverence for the Western genre, they also bring their moral code to it.
I would not call the Coens' True Grit revisionist, but I am happy to see them place the story back on the female lead and that they address some of the rah-rah religiosity and violence of traditional Westerns in their usual thoughtful way. It is a really beautiful and fun film. I love the Western, and the Coens have created a modern Western masterpiece.