I’m a little surprised that since I started this blog I haven’t written about quite possibly my favorite Coen Bros. movie, True Grit! After all, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn was the first image I put as a Cover image! Last night I brought the Blu Ray of the film to my uncle and aunt’s house and popped it in to show my uncle. He was pretty skeptical about seeing it, having absolute love for the John Wayne version of the film. I told him to watch the first 15 minutes of the Coen Bros. version just to give it a shot to see if it would interest him. What started as 15 minutes turned into the entire hour and 40 minute running time of the film! Although by the end of the movie he told me he thought the Coens version was maybe equally good as the John Wayne version, but nothing about Jeff Bridges performance made it better than the original. Of course, while everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m majorly inclined to disagree the 1969 version is a better film. Hallie Stanford in my eyes does a far superior job as Mattie Ross, and is far less annoying than Kim Darby. And as far as Bridges goes, he brings to the table his own unique spin on the crusty old Marshall Rooster Cogburn. Some have said that the Coen‘s version is closer to the novel. I haven’t read the book, so I couldn’t say. But there’s a host of great characters, humor, emotion. I’m not the only one who feels this way, but Roger Deakens was robbed of the Oscar for cinematography. He should have one it for the opening shot alone:
The opening shot is incredible…mesmerizing and thoughtful…like we are entering into a memory. The story is told through flashback by the adult Mattie Ross, recalling the death of her father, who was shot and killed at the hands of a drunkard outlaw, Tom Cheney. One thing I’d like to point out right away in this tale of revenge is that there is no moralizing. There’s no one trying to tell Mattie she’s wrong in her pursuit for revenge against her father’s killer. This is after all, a story set in the old west, and while no one would disagree with her wants for justice, it’s the series of obstacles in her way he faces that makes her journey so compelling, and the price she pays getting justice (more on that in a bit).
But it’s not just so much the physical obsticles that get in her way, its the very society in which she lives that forces her to overcome incredible odds. The major thing being she’s a woman. 14 years old on top of that. But she acts with the intelligence of a strong willed woman. She is living in a society in the late 1800’s where women pretty much have no rights, and being a young teenage girl, she is constantly undermined and underestimated by the adult world that surrounds her. Almost every adult Mattie encounters tries to take advantage of her based on her age. But she sees right through it. That’s not to say that she isn’t totally naive. She has never had the adventure or the experience quite like the one she takes with Rooster into the Chocktaw Nation in search of Tom Cheney. Her inexperience with a gun, as well as when she wants to lighten the mood between Cogburn and LaBeouf by telling campfire stories is where we are reminded of her age.
The journey for Mattie enters into the realm of myth. While I love so much of this film as a whole, my favorite sequence is the river crossing scene. It symbolizes Mattie taking the first major step into the adventure, where once the river is crossed, there’s no turning back. It‘s her fight…her struggle and leap of faith that brings her into the adventure. It’s this heroic first step that tells us this journey for justice for her father’s killer is what she really wants. She doesn’t know how deep the river is when she crosses it. The horse could drown for all she knows. But crossing the threshold is symbolized by the exciting heroic music by Carter Burwell as Mattie enters into the unknown. The music is almost celebratory, as it should be when a person allows themselves to take the plunge and onto an unknown journey:
There is great chemistry between the larger than life egos of Rooster, Mattie, and LaBeouf. If the three of them have anything in common, it’s that each of them has as much conviction as arrogance in their goals. Rooster himself is a crusty, stubborn old man, who has an estranged son that left him, as well as succumbing to the drink. However, he also loves having an audience for his old trail hand stories, talking to Mattie as they ride together about peoples he’s shot and stories about his past. But what’s funny about this is the fact that he’s telling all of this to a 14 year old girl. He doesn’t hold back what he says because of her age, he acknowledges her as a trail hand and an adult, making the relationship all the more endearing, which is pivitol to the final moments of the film. Rooster is hardly a moral man, even in his opening courtroom testimony as he tries to skid around what really happened in a shootout that went wrong, which probably makes us wonder about the full truth of some of his stories on the trail!
LaBeouf also starts out quite the stubborn arrogant man, flashing his badge with pride that he’s a Texas Ranger. He constantly fights Mattie at the beginning when she won’t give him the attention he so desperately craves. Mattie‘s headstrong ways, as well as headbutting get her into a lot of trouble in a society that’s constantly fighting against her. LaBeouf even takes out his frustrations on her whipping her with a stick. That scene in itself is interesting considering he’s wanted to smack the shit out this headstrong girl from the get go. But what’s also just as interesting and endearing is the bond that forms between them, where Mattie does see his courageousness in the face of danger and admits to having misjudged him. LaBeouf tells her the same in return. To the point of tears even, Mattie doesn’t want him to leave when LaBeouf feels Cogburn is right and the trail has gone cold.
Of course, no great film is without a great villain. What’s great about Tom Cheney’s character is that he isn’t properly introduced until the 3rd Act of the film, where before hand he’s only talked about. For filmmakers, this is a pretty big challenge, when you have a character that’s only talked about for a long period of time, it really takes a great actor playing that character to deliver on that performance, and on the promise to the audience that this is going to be a compelling character. Josh Brolin thankfully is such a great actor that he pulls it off. There’s debate among the characters about how to feel about Cheney. Mattie found him slow witted, but LaBeouf warns her that that was his act and not to underestimate him. He is a killer after all. When we finally meet Tom Cheney, we can believe Mattie’s descriptions about him not being terribly bright (why wouldn’t he lead his own gang instead of always joining up with other outlaws like Ned Pepper?) Mattie also faces the challenge of being thwarted by her want for revenge, where she’s against LaBeouf who wants Cheney hanged for killing a state senator. Mattie wants Cheney to know he’s being killed for murdering her father. While Rooster than argues what difference does it make so long as he’s killed anyway and justice has been served, it’s the principle and the only satisfactionemotional closure Mattie can get if she knows Cheney will be killed for murdering her father.
This leads to the climactic moment when Mattie kills Cheney, and she falls back into the snake pit. The snake bite and the loss of her arm through infection is the price she pays for her revenge. Cementing that is the long ride Rooster takes to get her to a doctor, the last leg of their journey together. In another sacrifice, there’s the killing of Little Blackie, the horse Mattie loved, symbolizing the end of her innocence. The longest journey at the end is powerful and moving, as well as making a hero out of Rooster, who doesn’t stop in his effort to save Mattie. It’s Karma, but in the end we see it was a price Mattie was willing to pay to find peace of mind in herself.
In all honesty, I think the remake of True Grit is better than the original John Wayne film. It takes the themes of the film to a much deeper level. What really shines about this version is what the Coens had to say about the powerful themes of the film. There is no moralizing about whether Mattie’s quest for revenge is right or wrong. Even though this is a revenge story, what it says more to me is that it’s about the quest to find peace in our lives, even if that search for peace comes at a price. It was important that Mattie lost her arm for killing Cheney, because if it didn’t come back to her, it would have made her no better than Cheney himself.
True Grit (2010) is one of my favorite films of all time. It’s a film I could pop in at anytime and just be as satisfied with. If you love the John Wayne version and are skeptical about the Coen‘s version, don’t underestimate this new take on the movie. If you need any convincing about that, just remember, it’s made by the Coen Bros. after all!