Movie Review: True Grit
The Charlotte Observer
“True Grit,” one of the most entertaining American novels of the last 50 years, came out in 1968. One year later, Hollywood set out to subvert it.
U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the bushwhacking alcoholic without a friend in the world, was tailored to fit John Wayne’s more heroic frame.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, the Arkansan who hires him to catch her father’s killer, was played by 21-year-old Kim Darby. LaBoeuf, a laconic Texas Ranger chasing that killer for another crime, was embodied by callow Glen Campbell.
Those of us who admire Charles Portis’ novel have waited 40 years for a screen version that’s as literal as possible – and the Coen brothers just about deliver it.
Most of the good lines in this truer “Grit” come from the novel – maybe all of them do – and the few missteps come from the Coens’ attempts to make the book funnier or keep the narrative more in line with a traditional movie archetype.
Jeff Bridges’ Rooster, more amoral and bluntly selfish than Wayne’s, really seems like someone who might kill an unsuspecting outlaw and frame the shooting as “self-defense.”
Hailee Steinfeld really was 13 when the movie was shot. Although she’s not as plain-faced as the book’s Mattie, she has the same unflappable dignity and single-mindedness. Matt Damon struggles a bit with the rhythms of LaBoeuf’s speech, but he’s credible as a shrewd tracker and bounty hunter.
Those archaic rhythms of dialogue are one of many things the movie gets exactly right, as Portis did. It is not natural to us to hear people speak in flowing sentences without the use of contractions, as you will discover, and I am of the opinion that it is a clever idea to make characters seem “historical” by altering the patterns of their speech. (Read the preceding sentence aloud, and you’ll have an idea what that sounds like.)
Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the landscape grimly beautiful even in a snowstorm, and editor “Roderick Jaynes” (the Coens, using a pseudonym) cuts each scene with an uncanny sense of where it ought to begin and end. Carter Burwell’s score consists mostly of variations on the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which may be ironic: God doesn’t enter into this story at any point, and human justice is all too fallible.
The Coens’ penchant for irony or satire is one of the film’s two weaknesses. They begin the film with a quote from Proverbs – “The wicked flee when no man pursueth” – because the person pursuing the killer is not a man but a teenaged girl. Mattie meets Rooster not in the courtroom, where he’s revealed to be corrupt and vicious (as in the book), but through an outhouse door.
Oddly, the Coens also make two conventional plot choices where Portis made unconventional ones, as if they couldn’t quite abandon the century-old template for movie Westerns. Yet these don’t sway the flow of the movie much, which continues on to Portis’ deeply unsentimental but satisfying finale.
In some ways, the movie pays homage to its 1969 predecessor. Dakin Matthews, who plays a white-bearded horse trader, seems to be channeling Strother Martin 41 years later. The face-off between Rooster and four bad guys still begins with the immortal line “I’d say that’s pretty bold talk for a one-eyed fat man” and unfolds the same way. (Rooster’s profane rejoinder is identical, too.)
Yet there’s more ferocity in the new version. There’s more of a feeling that valor may be the same thing as foolishness, that the universe is an arbitrary place where honorable behavior may be rewarded with pain or death. That’s the picture Hollywood couldn’t quite make in 1969, and the picture the Coens have given us now.