(Please note there are spoilers below.)
At the beginning of True Grit, the 2010 adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel of the same name (originally filmed in 1969 by Henry Hathaway and starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the lead roles), the proverb “The wicked flee when none pursueth” appears on screen. It’s a well-chosen phrase: people have thrown the word “biblical” at this movie many times over, and while that’s not exactly an easily-quantifiable description, nothing indicates the filmmakers’ intent more than a quote from The Bible itself. It also suggests that the line between good and bad in the film that follows is distinct, and that certainly is borne out during the 110 minutes that follows. Lastly, and most simply, it leads us directly to the very first scene, in which a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is seen fleeing on horseback with no-one else around (or rather no-one chasing him); at the same time a voiceover by Mattie Ross (Hailee Sternfeld) explains that Chaney – a hired hand – has just murdered her father.
The 14-year-old Mattie discovers that Chaney has fled with a gang, led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), into Choctaw Indian territory. She is informed that the local sheriff has no authority to bring them to justice, and decides to hire a grizzled, weary US Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her track Chaney and co down. Joining the party is earnest Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is himself following Chaney’s trail, as a result of an earlier (unseen) murder of a Texas state senator.
So the three set out in harsh conditions to find the outlaw and seek retribution for his crimes. (‘Retribution’ being an important word here; the story of True Grit may be a straightforward one, but a clear distinction should be made between that of a ‘retribution’ tale and a ‘revenge’ tale.) Mattie and her party have the law (and the morality of the time) on their side and intend throughout for Chaney to face justice. As such this western is one of the Coens’ most morally-unambiguous films and, as Roger Ebert said, it is “… the first straight genre exercise in their career” (although you could certainly make an argument that one or two of their screwball comedies could also be described in the same way).
Rather than remaking Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, though, Joel and Ethan Coen have imbued their western – a significant part of which deals with the tracking of the outlaws – with a menacing and foreboding tone, which is closer to the original source material and ensures it shares a similar level of grandeur as the best of the new wave of westerns that have graced cinema screens in the past half decade.
The novel is told from Mattie’s perspective as she looks back on events 25 years later, and this is a feature that the Coens wisely chose to reintroduce after it was ignored in the 1969 version. The earlier film also saw LaBoeuf die, and included an upbeat ending, in which Mattie completely recovers after a snake bite and bids farewell to Cogburn (who is last seen riding off into the sunset in the classic western style). Here, like the novel, LaBoeuf survives, but Mattie loses an arm after the snake bite, and she also comes close to meeting Cogburn twenty five years later at a travelling fair, only to find out when she arrives that he died a mere three days earlier. Trust the Coens to include this elegiac, downbeat ending. Life in the 19th Century is tough and death is inevitable – you can be noble and you can do the right thing, but no-one simply rides off into the sunset like John Wayne. As such the ending shares a similar sentiment with their previous film, A Serious Man, despite the subject matter being worlds apart.
This is a realistic vision of the cold, sparesly-populated and unforgiving landscape, where the people inhabiting it generally look unkempt and unhealthy, rather than a bunch of Hollywood actors dropped into a western-style setting. (Save perhaps for Matt Damon, who is good as LaBoeuf, but you’re always aware that once you strip the fake beard away it’s Matt Damon underneath. Jeff Bridges, meanwhile, just about disguises himself with poor diction and an eye patch, Josh Brolin is squinty and poorly-educated and Barry Pepper sports the kind of grim set of brown, uneven false teeth usually reserved for zombies or the English.). Long-time Coen collaborator and cinematographer Roger Deakins commendably equals his brilliant work on No Country For Old Men, making fine use of the wide, open spaces as the intrepid trio and their horses slowly follow the Pepper gang trail, but it’s not just the big country that looks good; Deakins’ lighting of the picture is excellent (particularly the scenes set during the night, but to pick one example in particular the arrival of Mattie at the station 25 years later is superbly-handled).
Mattie is tough, a superb advert for an intelligently-written strong teenage character. “They tell me you are a man with true grit” Ross says to Cogburn when attempting to convince him to support her search. At this point of the film he underestimates her – as does LaBoeuf later on – yet it is the stubborn young girl who displays the most grit, and courage, by sticking to the task at hand while the physically tougher men repeatedly flounce off in fits of pique. They come back to her, but her faith in the quest is unshakable, despite all that she must face.
The Coens seem to enjoy manifesting darkness and evil through personification (think Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo) but here the fact that Chaney and Pepper do not appear until the final half hour of the film means the ‘idea’ of the outlaw – along with the weather and nature – is a major threat to the three ‘good’ characters (with plenty of signifiers along their journey foretelling the meeting that awaits). It’s very effective, and makes the journey seem wrought with menace, despite only a couple of incidents taking place that are truly dangerous. A lot of time is given, in fact, to the petty squabbling between LaBoeuf and Cogburn, and when the trio do finally come across the outlaws, they are disappointingly all-too-human and easily vanquished by single bullets. This is a film very much rooted in reality, and it has no trouble in exposing the cheapness of life by killing its villains off quickly and without fuss.
What happens after the deaths of Pepper and Chaney is fascinating. The threat posed by snakes is mentioned earlier in the film by Cogburn, and by the end the gravest danger faced by Ross is a rattlesnake, which she comes face-to-face with after falling backwards into a pit. We spend most of the film watching this trio track down a gang of hardened criminals, but ultimately the biggest threat to their existence is the natural world – the cold, unforgiving landscape and all the mammals and reptiles that are struggling to make it through another winter. The focus shouldn’t be on justice or retribution in this environment: it should only be on survival.
True Grit contains several enjoyable moments of both action and humour, but it is a serious examination of survival during an undeniably harsh period in American history, made by two of the country’s greatest living directors; nearly 30 years since their first film, the Coen brothers are still constantly re-inventing what they do, leaping from one genre to the next and often mixing them together within the space of one movie, making it impossible to pigeonhole their style. Yet they regularly deliver excellent results whatever they turn their hands to, thanks to their considerable skill and excellent judgement in terms of regular collaborators. Despite their very high standards, it is still impressive and worthy of mention that they have made a totally convincing western at their first attempt. A confident film, superb to look at, and with excellent lead performances by Sternfeld and Bridges, True Grit is up there with their best work.
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Charles Portis
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Sternfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Running Time: 110 minutes