"True Grit" dir., Ethan and Joel Coen, 2010

The latest adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit is a surprising entry in the filmography of the sibling autuers Joel and Ethan Coen, though not surprising in the ways that we've come to expect from the blatant narrative upsets of recent pictures like No Country For Old Men (2007) and A Serious Man (2009). True Grit opts to follow the rules, all the way through to a couple of climatic moments of self-reflexive joy.  True Grit is, perhaps, the most conventional narrative that the Coen Brothers have ever produced, and even though this seems like it might lead to a film whose outcome has less weight than the aforementioned triumphs, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
In True Grit the Coens are working in a storytelling mode that is simultaneously faithful to the original text, while effortlessly playing like an evolution of their own unique aesthetic.  As in No Country for Old Men, the confines of the literature they are adapting suits their visual sensibility remarkably well.  Credit needs to go here to one of my cinematic heroes: cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Deakin's carefully negotiates the Texas and New Mexico shooting locations of True Grit in a way that does not need to linger excessively, and captures the landscape with stark precision, while moving us along at a sure clip in the hunt through the Western Arkansas hills of the story.  Surely, True Grit ranks among the most memorable of Deakin's work; with the Coens alone that includes the surreal hallways of Barton Fink, the golden lanes of The Big Lebowski, the white expanses of Fargo, and the black and white perfection of The Man Who Wasn't There.  Solely based on those works, Deakin's achievements would be remarkable enough, but add to it the work he's done with an array of other directors over the last 5 years:  Revolutionary Road and Doubt in 2008, and the film that must have prepped him most significantly for the challenges of True Grit, the gorgeous 2007 western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just to name a few.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
True Grit is yet again a very different type of western than The Assassination of Jesse James, but would still be considered a "superwestern," as critic/founder of Cahiers du Cinema, Andre Bazin would have it.  Bazin coined the term "superwestern" in the early 70's to address the western that transcended through theme the plot conventions of commercial westerns; a western that, as he put it, "would be ashamed to be just itself." Bazin was addressing the post-WWII superwesterns of King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946), Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), and George Steven's Shane (1953), but the post-Unforgiven superwesterns that lead to True Grit through the 90's and 00's are important to note as well, including Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol.2 (2004), Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiedes Estrada (2005), John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005), James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), and Gore Verbinski's recent surrealist-tinged cinema homage, Rango.  All of these pictures, ironically, seem to contain more actual grit than either version of True Grit.

In contrast to this collection of modern superwesterns, True Grit is decidedly Sunday matinee fare.  Even in contrast to the Coen Brother's entire filmography, True Grit is probably the least unruly of all of their narratives.  Even O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the film of theirs that sits most closely to True Grit in terms of audience appeal (and likelihood to appear on ABC's Family Channel), is layered in its references and squirrely in its storytelling in a way that makes True Grit seem uncomplicated in comparison.  The storytelling in True Grit is so stalwart and enjoyable that attention is almost drawn away from the subtle ways in which the Coens can't help but frustrate the perfectly calm gallop of young Mattie's quest.  For instance, the Coen's take time to show us Mattie's stern negotiation of the ponies with Col. Stonehill ("I do not entertain hypotheticals...The world itself is vexing enough"), and reveal further aspects of her character through the way in which she body-blocks Cogburn in her first attempt to employ him, all the while rolling his cigarette, and ultimately backing a man twice her size out the door in the opposite direction.  Later in the film, the script strays slightly in a chance meeting with what at first appears to be a brown bear riding a horse, and is revealed to be the reincarnation of Jack Elam (actually, actor Ed Corbin, brother of Northern Exposure and No Country's Barry Corbin), in a scene that  might be considered the True Grit equivalent of the Mika Yanagita scene in Fargo.

Ed Corbin in True Grit
The Coen's often allow us time to get used to the routines and mannerisms of their characters in this same way (think Lebowski), but it's in how they handle the unexpected that we truly come to know them (think A Serious Man).  Rooster and Mattie are cut from the same cloth--the true grit of the title refers every bit as much to her as it does to him, and, as characters, there is not much that alarms them.  Their emotional wells are not deep, and their overall personalities leave something to be desired.  We see each of them work awkwardly toward moments of levity--Rooster's attempt at entertaining Mattie with rambling, growled stories of ex-wives and failed endeavors, and Mattie's attempt at quelling the tension between Cogburn and LaBoeuf by enacting something called "The Midnight Caller"--but never get the sense that they really have it in them.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
I have often suspected that if there is a fatal flaw in the Coen's films it's a somewhat cruel detachment from their characters.  It took No Country For Old Men to reveal this aspect of detachment in Fargo for me, but True Grit's characterizations seem perfectly perched between a realm of pulp western and mythic journey, and in this sense the trappings of the genre and the source material suit the Coens perfectly.  As a genre piece, I found True Grit deeply moving (even the third time around).  In the finale of the film's plot, Rooster takes action beyond the want of Mattie's fees to save Mattie from a snakebite, driving her horse Blackie relentlessly into the night.  In a visual move that seems to me a unique risk within the Coen's films, the skies behind the huddled, wounded pair of protagonists are subtly changed to green screen inserts, estranging the tale ever so slightly from the realistic landscapes to which we've become accustomed, readying us for the final passage of the film, which shows little mercy.

Jeff Bridges in True Grit
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man
 The Coens like to "gang up" on their characters, so to speak.  There may be no better example of this than the slow, brutal build of punishments they dished out to Larry Gopnick in their last film, 2009's A Serious Man, but their films are full of nearly action-less heroes who do little more than witness the events swirling around them; from Barton Fink to the Dude, Ed Crane to Ed Tom Bell.  Throughout all of these films, the Coens are continually interested in subverting classic character and story archetypes, fueled by an obsession with the comedic rhythms of Preston Sturges, the films of Cornell Wilde, and film noir in general.  True Grit ultimately seems most interested in subverting the expectations of those who are expecting the Coens to "perform" like the Coens again.  If A Serious Man is a meditation on the relationship between our moral actions and their worldly consequences, and an indictment of the idea of narrative meaning within the Jewish faith (and the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane), then True Grit is a straight arrow bible story, unfolding with unflinching morality from the fade away of its opening verse from Proverbs:  "The wicked flee when no man pursueth."  (For David Lynch fans:  True Grit is to A Serious Man what The Straight Story is to Lost Highway, perhaps?)

The finale of A Serious Man
"Fill your hands..."
Rooster Cogburn faces off with Lucky Ned and his men in True Grit

Ultimately, it is the epilogue of True Grit that endows the film with the same weight of questions contained within their previous masterworks.  What we get in those final scenes is Mattie a quarter of a century later, dressed in black as she returns to see Cogburn, who is now a feature in a Wild West Show.  Mattie has now had a part of her body taken away, mirroring Cogburn's condition; this time an arm, in contrast to Cogburn's eye.  It is an uncompromising vision of Mattie that we get in these final scenes.  Her run-in with the ragged Wild West showmen allows us a reassessment of her character, as well as the myth of the "west"-ern, as she turns a quick heel and coldly barks at one of them, "Keep your seat, trash." 
Elizabeth Marvel in True Grit

In those final moments, as we ruminate on the opening verse, are we to read Mattie as a triumphant, transformed hero?  A bitter, maimed spinster?  A quiet rebel, content with her actions and at piece with herself?  A feminist, western icon, or an anti-feminist icon for the religious right?  Will the real Mattie Ross please stand up?

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