“There is no law west of St. Louis,” a popular saying had it over a century ago, “and no God west of Fort Smith.”
It is a verdict one would be not at all surprised to find confirmed in a Coen brothers film set in the time and place in question — even if by then a semblance of law had come to Fort Smith in the person of reputed “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. In fact, one could easily imagine the Coens being drawn to such a setting precisely for those qualities of lawlessness and godlessness.
In 14-year-old Mattie Ross, though, the Coens have a protagonist whose adamantine sense of purpose defies both halves of that 19th-century aphorism. Arriving in Fort Smith to identify the body of her slain father, Mattie is single-minded in her determination to see justice done for her father’s murder. She has a good lawyer whose name she deploys to considerable effect, she knows the difference between malum prohibitum and malum in se, and she is confident that Providence is with her.
“My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was,” she resolves, quoting the 23rd psalm (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”). “The Author of all things watches over me,” she concludes, “and I have a good horse.” About the horse, she is unquestionably right. As for the Author of all things, squint though I may, I cannot see that even the Coens necessarily dissent.
Irony and nihilism may be warp and woof for much of their work, but in True Grit the Coens seem to have found source material—the 1968 Charles Portis novel, not the 1969 John Wayne adaptation—whose own quirks and oddments play best when handled more or less straight. Not that True Grit is lacking in the deadpan humor, dark ironies and lexical stylings characteristic of the brothers’ work. But in Portis the Coens have apparently found a collaborator whose quirky voice blends so well with their own that they have allowed him to bring an unwonted level of sincerity and humanity to their chilly sensibility.
Smart, shrewd, fundamentally upright, and preternaturally self-assured, Mattie is the Coens’ most admirable protagonist since Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, in tight pigtails and broadbrimmed hat, negotiates her character’s varying toughness, naivete, enthusiasm and verbal virtuosity with uncanny aplomb. She’s not all rapid-fire banter: You can see hope sparkling in her young eyes as she tries to reel in Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the dissolute, capricious Deputy U.S. Marshall whom she hopes has the true grit to aid her cause—and suppressed unease as she puts down La Boeuf, the vain, bumptious Texas Ranger whom she finds in her room on waking one morning.
Even Rooster and La Boeuf are, for all their defects, remarkably capable, humanely drawn characters. The Duke’s fans may stoutly insist that there’s only one Rooster Cogburn—but Portis fans can credibly retort that, in that case, Wayne wasn’t him. Wayne won his only Oscar for the role he called his first good part in 20 years, but as rough around the edges as Wayne’s Rooster was, he was still a larger-than-life archetype and the hero of his film. It may be an open question whether any actor alive, even Jeff Bridges, could fill the Duke’s boots, but to their credit the Coens aren’t interested in finding out. Bridges’ Rooster is closer to the book’s: He’s meaner, less principled, and settles for playing second fiddle to Mattie, whose true grit never wavers even when Rooster’s does.
Not that Bridges isn’t great fun to watch, gurgling his slurred dialogue in the back of his throat, sounding like Bad Blake might sound if he drank twice as much and hadn’t cleared his throat in a decade or so. Matt Damon’s La Beouf is both less ridiculous and more transparently image-conscious than the Glen Campbell character from the 1969 film; it’s a terrific balancing act, all the more wonderful for resisting the Coens’ tendency to skewer their characters’ absurdities.
The rivalry between the Deputy U.S. Marshall and the Texas Ranger goes beyond the exigencies of the current chase. Rooster slights La Beouf’s Civil War service under General Kirby Smith, probably for the ineffectiveness of Smith’s forces in the Trans-Mississippi against Ulysses Grant and the Union Navy. La Beouf, meanwhile, snorts at Rooster’s loyalty to Captain William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, Civil War guerrilla fighters most infamously associated with the Lawrence Massacre.
But Mattie is the real heroine, not least for her skill in managing her two pigheaded escorts. If she is an unusually hard person, she has had an unusually hard life. From her late father she has learned to drive a hard bargain, a skill that serves her well in a hard country. One is reminded of Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone, another teenaged girl who has lost her father and has a less-than-competent mother and younger siblings, is saddled with too much adult responsibility, and is obliged to embark on a deadly quest in an icy, hostile landscape among lawless men. Mattie’s situation isn’t as harrowing as Ree’s; she has better help, and even the lawless men she meets west of Fort Smith aren’t as brutal as those Ree must confront. But she pays a higher price, perhaps.
The dialogue is a big part of what makes True Grit so hugely entertaining. Most of it is from Portis, and both films stick pretty close to source in this respect, so much of it will be familiar to fans of the 1969 film: Mattie’s rapier-like parley with the auctioneer Stonehill over the horses; Rooster’s semi-effective testimony in Judge Parker’s court; Rooster and Mattie sparring on how and where Tom Chaney will pay for his crimes. But the language is even more striking in the new film, with more emphasis on the archaic rhythms of the sentences, at once rustic and poetic, all but unsmoothed by contractions.
Master cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen collaborator whose previous work includes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, creates images of striking beauty with a limited palette that seems all dust and rocks. Standout supporting performances include Josh Brolin as the whiny killer Chaney and a startling Barry Pepper as the revolting but not unthoughtful outlaw “Lucky” Ned Pepper.
The Coens’ film is franker than its predecessor about the violence of the old West and of Portis’s book; it is also franker about the religiosity, from frequent scriptural references to a score shot through with hymnody (mostly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” but also “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “The Glory-Land Way” and others). The film opens with an epigram from Proverbs (“The wicked flee when none pursueth”), and in the first-act public hanging one of the condemned men earnestly urges onlookers to “train up your children in the way that they should go” and avoid a similar fate. But the next condemned man is defiant—“I see men out there in that crowd worse than me”—and the thoughts of the third man, alas, are lost forever.
Is there justice? Does the Author of all things see? In an opening monologue Mattie declares: “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.” Chaney pays for his crime—and Mattie pays for her vengeance, in one and the same act. Significantly, the Coens depart from source here, and there is no mistaking the moral rigor of cause and effect in this reworking.
There is justice, but there is also grace, if we choose to see it, in the same scene, in a whispered two-word prayer and the pull of another trigger—an impossible shot that winds up saving two lives, including Mattie’s. And there is grace, too, in Rooster’s finest moment, in which he comes to the end of himself, and finds that there is more there than we might have thought.
Available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, True Grit comes with a decent though not spectacular collection of extras. The best of the bunch are a half-hour featurette on author Charles Portis (“The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of”) and an eye-opening look all the work that went into transforming the town of Granger, Texas into Fort Smith. There are also shorter extras on the period costumes and firearms, and an interview with Hailee Steinfeld. A short featurette on the cast and the theatrical trailer rounds out the collection.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.