The first time around True Grit was to me nothing more than a damn good Western. I was particularly impressed with Hailee Steinfeld, I thought the cinematography and score were superb and I enjoyed the dialogue and the character development. I felt that as a whole the film was a fitting tribute to a well worn genre that allowed the Coen Brothers to sit back and rest on some laurels but still gain some plaudits and award nominations.
My thumb was up, but I wasn’t exactly screaming praise from the rooftops.
However, upon seeing the movie for a second time I feel it imperative to state that True Grit is an absolute masterpiece, to me at least. The film is as much a Coen Brothers piece as any that have gone before it, the pace and performances are all inch perfect, and more than anything True Grit is pure entertainment. In years to come this film should stand as a pinnacle of assured filmmaking and as a Western that will unlikely be bettered for quite some time. Much like Unforgiven in 1992, True Grit is defining.
Where to begin? I imagine that my first viewing mirrored that of most people’s: it was hard to keep up with the dialogue at times, straining to understand most of what came out of Jeff Bridge’s mouth, translating and retranslating 19th century rhetoric into a more comprehensible form so to follow the plot. Scenes were long, the music was steady, the scenery was dense. Horses trotted as opposed to running everywhere.
Damn, it’s really easy to suddenly find yourself a wee bit drowsy when you’re watching a film isn’t it?
Thankfully the final half an hour picked up the pace immensely. We meet the bad guys, have a few gun fights, fear for Mattie’s life and then face a race against time to save the day. All in the space of about 20 minutes before the epilogue finale brings a close to the film.
I can completely appreciate criticism that argues this kind of pacing is harmful to the viewer. If the aim is to recreate for the audience the slow and steady journey that the characters experience and then follow it with a quick burst of intensity then fair enough, however some viewers could find themselves too withdrawn and morose by the time the set pieces kick in to actually give a damn about how everything is wrapped up; they’re just keen for the credits to roll so they can get home.
The problem is that pacing of this sort is integral to the ethos of the Western. In a modern day equivalent like the road movie getting from one side of the country to the other can be done in a week, less if the airlines will let you on the plane (although if you’re Steve Martin or Robert Downey Jr that sometimes isn’t an option). Mattie, Rooster and La Boeuf’s expedition sees them covering much less ground in a far greater time, and paying the price when they have to get somewhere quickly. Their respites are a clearing and a naked flame, not a Novotel with a creepy manager and broken air conditioning.
It goes without saying, these were different times.
For me the sense of distance and adventure is marvellously captured in True Grit. On the one hand we see it as just another day at the office; La Boeuf is comfortable to travel alone, Rooster is so experienced he can do it drunk. On the other there is the wide eyed optimism of Mattie; unafraid to plunge head first into murky waters, excited to share stories around the campfire, keen to learn the tricks of how to catch the bad guys and be party to inventive schemes.
Experiencing the trail from both of these perspectives allows us the freedom to see it as an unknown place of wonder and excitement, whilst at the same time supported by tried and tested hands that are there to help when the going gets tough.
Part of the majesty of a Western is patience. Mattie is on the hunt for Tom Chaney to avenge her father’s death but the team she gathers is in no major rush to catch him up. The sense is that as long as they are sensible and follow Chaney’s trail (stores he has visited, lodges his gang are connected too) and make good time, Mattie et al will eventually catch up to their target and then decide how to act. Their plan is only ever as long as their horses can carry them that day. That Mattie ends up finding Chaney accidentally at a point where she has lost the scent and given up is a timely reminder of the certainty of chance, and proof that it can be a very small world when everyone moves so slowly.
This lack of urgency that our heroes embody is important; it allows them to stop and investigate a hanging body, wait to see who is following them and pause for a quick-draw target contest, showing the audience an ever changing variety of vignettes and experiences brought by a life in the wilderness. The notion that the Wild West is a truly enormous space and that tracking is about looking after your own resolve so that you are prepared should you come face to face with your prey is something that I think can be lost on modern audiences for whom obtaining a target amounts to little more than turning on a gadget of some description.
In our audio review I said that I didn’t see True Grit as a truly ‘Coen’ movie but with hindsight and the means to watch the film without struggling to keep up with the plot I feel it is as truly off beat and imaginative as their more low-fi efforts of the early nineties.
Their stamp is all over this adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel. Mattie’s lyrical negotiation with Colonel Stonehill to sell back her father’s ponies is funny, irreverent and character defining. Moments later Mattie shares a bed with a particularly selfish nanna and is instantly transformed back into a child. The undertaker is a classic Coen-y bit part that in a few short lines injects humour and originality where otherwise there might be none.
Add to this the fact that when we finally meet Chaney his relationship to the rest of the Ned Pepper Gang is unexpected at best. This is not the mastermind criminal La Boeuf had us believe we were hunting; Chaney is weak and simple, a henchman to his more organised and controlled leader, Ned Pepper.
But perhaps the greatest feat of the film comes in the form of Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of Rooster Cogburn. Better than his performance in Crazy Heart (yet ironically much farther away from earning the best actor award at this month’s Academy awards than that role allowed him last year) Bridges and the Coens have worked together to create an archetypal Western hero that echoes the efforts of his peers before him. As staggering a comment on our assumptions of the gunslinger as Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny was nearly 20 years ago, Cogburn highlights the depravity and humility of the Wild West and the lack of certainty for its inhabitants.
John Wayne’s performance as Rooster in the 1969 adaptation of True Grit won him an Oscar and cemented his reputation as the ultimate Western icon of that era, however the praise owed more to Wayne’s own reputation as a movie star than it did to the character of Rooster in the original novel. Wayne’s Rooster overcomes his flaws – alcohol, age, short temperedness – and rides away the revitalised hero to fight again in a sequel 6 years later.
Not so in Rooster circa 2011. Bridges plays Rooster as the sum of his parts; a desperate and unflattering man that people involve themselves with purely to satisfy a greater need. Rooster is rude, obnoxious, stern and arrogant. His dependence on alcohol is known by others but lost on himself and his demeanour is outwardly offensive.
Whilst Mattie has a youthful enthusiasm to spending time with such an uncouth outsider (in typical Western coda Rooster is a man rejected by society and modernity) we notice the loneliness that must exist within. As their trail wears on Rooster recounts his life story to Mattie, who follows on obediently with no choice but to listen. Unlike with other heroes of the era and beyond this is a man who shows no shame in where his life has led him. As he misses shots and loses his footing Rooster has an excuse for everything, knowing that when the time comes he will step up and prove himself.
How fitting that Rooster’s profession by the end of the film is as a travelling performer, using the quick-fire skills that he once used to kill bad guys and save damsels in distress to wow audiences and entertain families for a quick buck.
And so, over 1500 words later (thanks for reading!) it is time to draw to an end this ode to a modern classic. There are enough films in any given year that Chris and I will pine over and lavish with utmost praise and affection. The true gems however are those that improve with age; getting better with each visit as opposed to those that we start to find the flaws in.
True Grit is just that type of gem, and in keeping with the theme it is exactly that trait which keeps the Western genre so iconic. The first time around 2 plus hours of American drawl on horses can seem like nothing other than a means to reaching another unforgettable shootout; but eventually it is the beauty of seeing the code and the honour play out, the formation of such poetic language, and the mastery of the filmmakers that make it all appear onscreen that sticks with us and makes movies like this linger in the memory.
Check it out, and then some.