True grit was hers all along
by Jason Blair
TRUE GRIT: Written and directed by the Coen brothers, based upon the novel by Charles Portis. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld. Paramount Pictures, 2010. PG-13. 110 minutes.
True Grit is a secret of American literature, a book people come to, if they come to it at all, by way of the John Wayne film. While Hollywood routinely euthanizes its source material, True Grit is a novel of great perception and clarity of voice, making its obscurity an ongoing issue for debate. I would argue that the film’s prolonged legacy is due in part to the Unforgiven effect, in that True Grit undercuts the Duke’s iconic status as an indestructible Western hero. The film bends the considerable material of the book to the anvil of Wayne’s legendary persona — a fading persona by 1969, but one that might have turned down playing Rooster Cogburn, the “one-eyed fat man” who drinks and shoots his way through True Grit. It was the last great role of Wayne’s career, winning him his only Academy Award, and the film has been diverting attention from the novel ever since.
Since that film emphasizes Rooster at the expense of the book’s narrator, the precocious Mattie Ross, the adaptation was incomplete, a fact which helps explain why the Coen brothers have now remade the Charles Portis novel. The center of the story, particularly in the first act, is young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl with preternatural poise and a stunning gift for persuasion. She has the silver tongue of a trial lawyer — she regularly invokes her family attorney’s name, particularly when she wants something — a skill she’ll need if she’s to avenge the murder of her father in Fort Smith, Ark. The assailant, a halfwit named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), escapes into Choctaw Territory following the murder, which in 1880 is a little like setting out on the open ocean. Mattie needs a reliable bounty hunter with the same resolute spirit she possesses, but instead she gets Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. marshall with a knack for drink and a related knack for talk.
Along with Le Boeuf (Matt Damon), a vain and boastful Texas Ranger, Mattie and Rooster set out to avenge her father’s death. From here, True Grit belongs fully to Rooster, whose two great skills, tracking and storytelling, click the picture into focus. Rooster’s mirthful side softens the picture, even as his standing with Le Boeuf deteriorates. Ultimately, Le Boeuf splits off, a windbag whose wind keeps getting sucked up by Rooster. But while True Grit commits its first 20 minutes to establishing Mattie’s rhetorical gifts — her dressing down of a stables owner is unforgettable — the film falls short of putting her into a context beyond her singular quest. Mattie is capable and brimming with certitude, and Steinfeld’s debut performance is the stuff of legends, but as in the 1969 film, Mattie is merely a passenger through large stretches of True Grit.
In creating a straight adaptation of a book they clearly admire, the Coen brothers have fashioned a portrait of perseverance that falls just shy of being great. Absent is the atmosphere so indelible in their best films, typically expressed through supporting cast (the nihilists in Lebowski, for example, or the cops in Barton Fink). We’re left instead with a tiny cast of well-drawn characters against a very blank landscape. The weirdness we’ve come to associate with the Coens, when it does come, feels like weirdness for its own sake. Whereas their last adaptation, No Country for Old Men, seemed to awaken their best instincts, so resolutely focused is True Grit that it feels a little trapped by the source material.
Flat, linear and episodic, the whole of True Grit is less precise, with an impact less immediate, than No Country for Old Men. The constraints are particularly evident in the beyond-belief finale sequence, in which predators both human and otherwise are dispatched with relative ease. The new film, like the book, is a Western in presentation only, meaning that it occupies the time and spaces of most Westerns but is more aptly a quest story with coming of age themes. It does the book far greater justice than the original film. But it doesn’t knit together into something unforgettable.