True Grit (2010) sticks out in Joel and Ethan Coen’s body of work. It’s a black sheep. They leech the film of irony and nihilism. They dial down their condescension of and cruelty towards their characters. They view their characters not on high, but almost eye-level this time. In the past, the Coen brothers warped any genre that they worked in and with. The Western (Blood Simple., No Country for Old Men), screwball comedy (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, Burn After Reading), gangster films (Miller’s Crossing), film noir (Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men) – you name it. With True Grit, however, their approach to genre is more straightforward. In a New York Times profile, Joel said, “We didn’t think we should mess around with what we thought was a very compelling story and character.”1 A telling remark – in Charles Portis, the Coens found an author who shares a similar sensibility for language and worldview.
This isn’t the first True Grit to make it to the silver screen. That would be Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version with John Wayne playing the ornery and fat Rooster Cogburn. When making their film, the Coens didn’t even watch Hathaway’s version. Rather, they went straight to the source, Portis’ 1968 novel, shooting a film faithful to the texture and feel of the source material. In the novel, set in the 1870s, 13-year-old Mattie Ross, a native of Yell County, Arkansas, hires Cogburn to fetch the coward Tom Chaney who, after shooting her father dead, fled. He’s presumed to have hitched up with a gang of bandits led by Lucky Ned Pepper. Cogburn balks at her joining, but relents when he sees that it’s impossible to get rid of her from this manhunt. Tagging along, and seeking Chaney for shooting a senator, is puffed up Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Mattie’s a strong-willed girl. She’s a girl with staunch puritanical beliefs in justice. She wants vengeance. She wants to see Chaney hang.
Told from Mattie’s perspective, as a 40-year-old spinster, Portis’ prose is self-conscious, and therefore a hilarious, excessively formal 19th century patois. Portis’ work was made for the Coens. They are mimics. They love idiomatic and regional language. “The Coens go for baroque—high stylisation that’s not quite horse-operatic, but in an American vernacular that’s like Bach transposed to ‘Deadwood,’” says critic Jim Emerson.2 Emerson further highlights language’s musicality in the Coens’ film. Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) has a “youthful contralto” that contrasts with the low-register voices of Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). What stands out though, is Ned Pepper’s (Josh Brolin) mush-mouthed countertenor.3
For the music proper, longtime collaborator Carter Burwell fills the soundtrack with reworkings of hymns, particularly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which plays at the beginning and end of the film, as well as sung by Iris DeMent over the end credits. It’s a film full of musical references by filmmakers who enjoy mixing and matching styles, who are practitioners of pastiche. And to go back to the music, Burwell puts his use of hymns this way: “All musical traditions—classical, folk, jazz, pop—involve the reworking of previous material, and if it’s well done the transformation is as original in its intent and execution as an ‘original’ work.”4 The Coens work in genres, and genre films rework previous material. The brothers reshape movies from the past to fit their vision.
Far from being metteur en scene par excellence, the Coens possess an aesthetic that they’ve sustained throughout their career. One of their stylistic paradigms is a fundamental technique that harkens back to Classical Hollywood, the shot-reverse-shot in which characters engage in dialogue exchanges. These shots are the baseline of their films. Think of Marge (Frances McDormand) meeting Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) at a diner in Fargo; Chigurh (Javier Bardem) telling Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) to “call it,” to call heads or tails over her death; or Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) instructing Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) the right way to say “Would that it were so simple” in Hail, Caesar! (2016). Shot-reverse-shots are the foundation of the Coens’ work, and they can be seen in True Grit between Mattie bartering with a hapless salesperson; between Cogburn defending himself against a big shot attorney; and between Cogburn bickering with LaBoeuf.
True Grit – being a western and all – means landscapes come into play. The Coens don’t present a Fordian mythopoeic West. Although set in Arkansas (and filmed in Granger, Texas), True Grit’s landscapes are a bit more abstract, a bit more variegated with different terrains (mountains, valleys, desserts) and weather (snow, sunshine) thanks to rotoscoping and VFX.5 The filmmakers were inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Howard Pyle’s illustrations for children’s adventures, like Book of Pirates (1921).6 Their long shots of Mattie, Cogburn, and LaBoeuf riding are refined, uncluttered, and immediate, calling to mind Pyle’s “Marooned” (1909) and “So the Treasure Was Divided” (1905). The subtlety gives way to full-fledge fantasy with a sequence where the artifice moves to the forefront. After a snakebite leaves her on the brink of death, Cogburn rides with Mattie all through the night to the nearest town on her horse. That is until the horse dies from an exploded heart, then Cogburn carries her in his arms. It vaguely recalls the river sequence in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), and by extension German Expressionism. It’s otherworldly, it’s touching, it’s like nothing else in the Coens’ body of work. The sequence gets at the core of True Grit. It’s just Mattie, Cogburn, and the blurring landscape around them. The Coens are lyrical when they play it straight.
True Grit (2010 United States 110 minutes)
Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen Scr: Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel True Grit by Charles Portis Phot: Roger Deakins Ed: Roderick Jaynes (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
- David Carr, “The Coen Brothers, Shooting Straight,” The New York Times, 10 December 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/movies/12grit.html. ↩
- Jim Emerson, “Three Minor Notions: 1. The ‘True Grit’ Cantata,” Roger Ebert, 8 March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/about/style-guide/. ↩
- Ibid ↩
- Carter Burwell, “Carter Burwell’s Notes,” Carter Burwell, n.d., http://www.carterburwell.com/projects/True_Grit.shtml. ↩
- Vincent Frei, “True Grit: Vincent Cirelli – VFX Supervisor – Luma Pictures,” Art of VFX, 9 March 2011, http://www.artofvfx.com/true-grit-vincent-cerelli-superviseur-vfx-luma-pictures/. ↩
- Glenn Whipp, “The Coen brothers’ gritty tale for kids,” The Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2011, http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jan/11/news/la-en-true-grit-20110111. ↩