Thursday, June 9, 2011

True Grit: Vengeance and Death in the West

True Grit
US, 2010
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

This may be a break from the usual format of a film review, but I have to say, here in the first line, that I really enjoyed True Grit. However, I would be a liar if I told you that I'd found a place to hang my hat in talking about it. I don't believe it is a terribly difficult film, in any sense—well, unless you count the thickness of the dialect-heavy dialog the Coen Brothers lift from Charles Portis's novel, which does take some getting used to. But the film itself is not convoluted or hard to follow. This is no sparse, philosophical treatise filled with hard-to-decipher symbolism; it is an entertaining, widely-accessible, successful exercise in genre. It is a journey film, with a very definite Point A and Point B. So why do I find it so hard to talk about?

Perhaps it's something to do with the purpose of the journey. At the start of it, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is already pretty grown-up, so it's not as though this is a coming-of-age tale, exactly. Even at fourteen, she's confident enough to take the measure of the people she meets and use them as needed, most notably when she employs logic and law to practically haggle a trader out of his boots. She's certainly capable of holding her own in the manly world of the West, at least on an intellectual level. Without giving anything away, I'm not sure that where she ends up by the film's conclusion is too fundamentally different from where she started.

I suppose it may also be a question of motivation. What really motivates Mattie to set out on her quest? Although her father is dead, the victim of a murderer's bullet, she doesn't seem to be out to find a man to replace him, in either a tangible or symbolic sense, in caring for her family. One could even argue that by carrying his gun, dressing in his clothes—including his hat, stuffed with paper to better fit her teenage head—and setting out to take care of his "business," she sees herself as her father's replacement. I'm not certain where the outcome of the film's journey fits into that assessment, but that's another story.

Is she motivated by money? She certainly has a head for finances, and more than once mentions the money and "California gold pieces" thief Tom Chaney (a vile Josh Brolin) stole after gunning down her father. Chaney even calls her "little Mattie the bookkeeper." But she's not after a reward, as she'd rather see Chaney hang in Arkansas than let Matt Damon's Texas Ranger LaBoeuf turn him in in Texas for a large ransom.

Nor, I think, is Mattie motivated by justice. As familiar as she may be with the law, as demonstrated by her haggling and by her attempts to invoke legal tenets even in the lawless wilds, she doesn't have a lot of faith in its capabilities. She could have hired any of several Marshals, but deliberately chooses the cantankerous Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a man known for his willingness to kill criminals he can't (or chooses not to) bring in alive. She states that she aims to kill Chaney, before amending the statement to a conditional "if the law won't."

No, I think Mattie Ross is primarily motivated by vengeance, by looking at the world like a ledger with an imbalance (her father's murder) that needs to be reconciled simply because it's wrong. Make no mistake; she's no heartless revenge-seeking machine. She is still a child, and Steinfeld imbues her with a childishness hidden below her strength, a childishness all but drummed out of her by the harshness of the times in which she lives. But it is vengeance, on both the personal and cosmic levels, that fuels Mattie's quest and provides an outlet for a grim determination uncommon to people of her age and sex in that era.

Around Mattie, the Coens build a beautiful, cold, dimly-lit world. Roger Deakins, their longtime first-choice cinematographer, outdoes himself again with his work here. From candlelight to moonlight to the impotent whiteness of the winter sun, Deakins paints tonally-perfect visuals to accompany Mattie and Rooster's journey. The film's vision of the west, also embodied by the costume design and art direction, has a griminess, a level of lived-in dirt rarely seen in classic Westerns, but totally earned from the perspective of realism.

The Coens' script has an economy to its plotting that even the accounting-minded Mattie could appreciate. There are few asides, few of the random deviations from the main story that accompany the typical Coen brothers picture. Yet the dialog still has wit, and the action is no less filled with black humor than the brothers' earlier outings. Still, the tone isn't ironic or flippant in any way, and the film's air of frank earnestness absolutely works given the material. This is a place where violent death is the rule, rather than the exception, and the story and direction bring this point home without melodrama or pathos.

All of the main actors put in great work. Bridges steps into an iconic, Oscar-winning role and makes it his own, giving the boozy Marshal a rough-edged swagger that becomes tempered by his growing respect for Steinfeld's willful Mattie. Steinfeld, herself, is incredible, and her performance never betrays her youth or inexperience. Matt Damon occasionally channels his uncanny Matthew McConaughey impression into his characterization of the confident, dandified LaBoeuf, adeptly keeping the character in the no-man's-land between likable and unlikeable. Despite limited screen time, Brolin and Barry Pepper appear to have fun playing the bad guys, with Pepper feeling like a natural extension of the kind of "villains" found in old Budd Boetticher pictures. Brolin, meanwhile, doesn't play Chaney as some sort of mastermind or big shot, but as a simple-minded drifter, a thug only made special by virtue of being the object of the protagonists' hunt.

I would like to sum up here by casting light on the film's message, perhaps calling it a picture about the price of revenge, or the role of a girl in a man's world, but True Grit resists such easy characterization. I wonder if it's about the effects of growing up with the specter of death always just around the corner, or about how we are marked by our pasts and must learn to live with both the journeys we've decided to take, and the uncontrolled circumstances that necessitated them. Even these seem like weak ways of encapsulating this film's heart. The best I can do is to call it an enjoyable, well-writen, well-shot, well-directed, and well-acted film, and hint—just as the film hints—at the thematic depth below the surface. I hope that is enough to get you to watch it.


  1. I saw it when it came out. Really enjoyed your review.

    It was so much better having a young actress play the Mattie role. The fact that she was so damn good certainly helped.

  2. @spurge -

    Thanks! Yeah, I wish I saw it in theaters, because I'm sure the visuals really look great on a big screen, but I was (and am) broke, so no cinema trips for me.

    I totally agree about casting an age-appropriate girl for the role. I've never watched the entirety of Hathaway's Wayne-starring adaptation, but it does seem like having even an older teen playing Mattie would change the dynamic in subtle ways. And Steinfeld really was great... you really don't see young actors like that very often. I hope she continues getting killer roles like this one!

  3. I think the Woman who played Mattie in the old version was 22 at the time.

    Agree with you about Steinfeld. I hope that there will be more good parts for the Women coming in to the movie biz. It really pisses me off at how screwed they are.

  4. @spurge - Yeah, well, movies tend to favor the young more than the old, in general, at least in part because of the coved 18-34y.o. demographic (and the tweens with money to burn). Plus, for some reason, older men are always perceived as viable leads for longer than older women. Makes no sense, but I'm not sure it'll change anytime soon :(