‘True Grit’: True greatness

December 21, 2010

It should come as no surprise that the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have made a terrific western in “True Grit.” After all, they won the Oscar for a western, a modern one to be sure, with “No Country for Old Men.”


Now, with “True Grit,” they’ve done the whole boots-and-saddles thing, adapting a novel that previously had been known as the movie that won John Wayne his Oscar. That was 1969, when the words “revisionist western” had barely been coined by a critic somewhere.


The original film, directed by Henry Hathaway, was nobody’s idea of revisionism. It was good guys and bad buys, with joking references to central character Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn’s tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. But there was no doubt that Wayne’s Rooster was a traditional hero, despite his tendency to drink a little too much. Ain’t you never heard of comic relief?


The Coens, however, play it straighter. While both films are relatively faithful to Charles Portis’ novel, the Coens more closely capture the sense of rough justice, the sense that no good deed goes unpunished in the Old West – and that even heroes have feet of clay.


Hathaway’s film was a western of its era, a time when Hollywood still considered the western a viable commercial form, something that hasn’t been true for a long time (which is why journalists inevitably make such a big deal about it when someone actually makes one these days). Those westerns had horses and wagons and six-shooters and the like – but they always felt like they were shot on a backlot. They featured long-established towns that had been around for a while, instead of the kind of recently thrown-together settlements that were tents before someone got the money or equipment to make buildings out of wood.


But the Coens’ Fort Smith, Ark., where this story starts, has that sense of newness (which David Milch also captured in his “Deadwood” series) and impermanence. That’s the town young Mattie Ross steps into, after the murder of her father.


Played with a starchy impertinence (that occasionally breaks to reveal the little girl beneath the surface of this 14-year-old) by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie arrives in Fort Smith to arrange for the shipment home of her father’s body, settle his business affairs and seek justice (“Retribution,” as the film’s posters proclaim) for his murder.


She settles on U.S. Marshal Reuben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) as her agent of justice, because he has a reputation for being tough and relentless. Still, it takes some cold, hard cash to convince him to take on the mission into the Choctaw Indian territory (later Oklahoma) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father.


She finds she has competition for Chaney’s capture: a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) which he pronounces la-Beef. He’s seeking Chaney under a different name for a murder in Texas. Eventually, LaBoeuf and Cogburn decide to partner up and go after Chaney alone – until the tenacious Mattie inserts herself into the hunting party.


The farther they travel, the colder and, occasionally, snowier it gets. It’s less a question of whether they’ll find Chaney than when; though the territory is vast, Cogburn knows where to look and who to ask. Naturally it leads to a showdown – with Chaney and his running buddy, Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). The final 20 minutes of the movie, in fact, is a string of well-choreographed and suspenseful scenes, right up to the climax of the action.


Yet the actual action in the film is almost secondary to the developing relationship between Cogburn and Mattie, as they ride together through the wilderness. She’s a talker and he’s taciturn – but given the opportunity, he opens up about his long, checkered life – marriage, various attempts at business, stabs alternately at being an outlaw and being a lawman.


There’s a thin line between those two – law and outlaw. In the Coens’ Old West, it’s more a question of attitude, really, though the difference between Cogburn and LaBoeuf is stark. But LaBoeuf is also something of a prig, outraged at the idea of traveling with a little girl, outraged at Cogburn’s cavalier approach – just generally hide-bound and rule-abiding.


But then so is Mattie. As played by Steinfeld, she’s a tough little character, mature for her years and both wary and suspicious – yet naïve in any number of ways. Her plucky self-assurance strikes wonderful comic sparks with Bridge’s laconic Cogburn and Damon’s easily ruffled LaBoeuf.


If anything, this performance is even tastier and more pungent than the one Bridges won his Oscar for in “Crazy Heart.” As Cogburn, he’s only got one eye to work with – and a jaundiced one at that. Yet he never utters a word that isn’t pithy (thanks to the Coens’ script and Portis’ original) or which doesn’t sound pithy with his delivery. He puts the grrr in gruffness, yet casually reveals Cogburn’s heart at surprising moments.


Damon brings a certain prissiness to LaBoeuf that’s perfect for this role. In smaller (much smaller) roles, Brolin makes Chaney humorously self-pitying, while Pepper makes Lucky Ned a scrappy, canny opponent for Cogburn. Roger Deakins, the Coens’ long-time cinematographer, captures both the beauty of the wide-open prairie and its haunting emptiness. The Coens’ script finds a humorous blend of the formal and the profane, even as it easily uncovers humor in moments without working at it.


“True Grit” is superb, one of the best movies of the year and one that shows other filmmakers just how a western should be made.