True Grit, a major surprise

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought…
— W.B. Yeats, “Long-Legged Fly”

It would be an understatement to say that I have loathed every movie by the Coen brothers that I have seen, from the sick and evil Fargo to the supremely sick and evil No Country for Old Men. So when, last fall, positive buzz began, even among conservatives, about the Coens’ remake of True Grit, I automatically dismissed it as yet further evidence of conservatives’ blindness to liberal and nihilist cultural messages, so long as those messages have some “conservative” coloring.

However, I recently saw True Grit on DVD, twice, and it is completely unlike any other Coen brothers film. It is not sick and evil, but a straightforward story, based on Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and not on the 1969 movie (which is also very good).

It is not without flaws. Worst is the soundtrack music in the opening and closing sections which gives the movie the totally inappropriate, sentimental feel of a Ken Burns documentary. In general the early scenes are not particularly effective. A conversation between the 14 year old Mattie and the federal marshal Cogburn when Cogburn is in an outhouse is unbelievable and in bad taste (would anyone ever approach a person for a conversation while the person is using an outhouse?), and there is a gratuitous portrayal of “white racism” in a scene where an Indian is hanged along with two white men. But once the story gets going the movie is astonishingly good, with a unique feel and rhythm of its own. The plot, involving a journey into the wilderness in seach of a murderer, develops in spontaneous, unexpected ways. The landscape is unlike that in any other Western movie I’ve seen. And there is the formal, almost biblical sounding syntax in the characters’ speech in which contractions (such as “don’t) are avoided. I do not know if people in the 19th century frontier actually spoke that way, but it is part of the movie’s charm.

Most importantly, True Grit avoids the usual tropes of contemporary film. Since it is about an extremely assertive young girl and two less than perfectly functional men, you would expect it to be a feminist tract, but it is not that at all. Mattie is indeed remarkable, a force of nature. But the core of the story is her growing respect and love for Cogburn and La Boeuf, who become, in effect, her models of manhood, and on whose “right stuff” (true grit) she depends, not only in order to capture her father’s killer, but to save her life after she needlessly endangers it by her own willful and impulsive act. Also, since playing resentment has been Jeff Bridges’s specialty for decades, I had expected a wildly indulgent performance from him in which he made Rooster Cogburn gross and resentful. He does not do that at all. It is a uniquely conceived characterization of a man who is very rough but has dignity and honor, as well as amazing resourcefulness. It transcends everything Bridges has previously done in his career. (I haven’t cared about the Academy Awards for over 20 years, but if I still did, I would say that Bridges should have won the Best Acting Award over Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.) Also, Matt Damon, whom I have never considered a successful character actor except for his performance many years ago in The Talented Mr. Ripley, is excellent as the touchy Texas Ranger La Boeuf (pronounced, amusingly, “La Beef”).

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Paul K. writes:

I too enjoyed the Coen brothers’ True Grit, though unlike you I have enjoyed several of their earlier films. Even though I enjoyed it, I wondered why it needed to be made, as the original was so good and I can’t see that the new one improved on it greatly. Still, it made more money than any previous Coen brothers’ movie, and you can’t argue with success. [LA replies: Of course you can argue with success. What is traditionalism, but arguing with success?]

One thing I noted was that the new version minimized the Christianity that is so key to Mattie’s strength and that figures to a greater extent in the earlier movie and even more so in the book. In the earlier movie, when Mattie is arguing with the horse dealer, Stonehill, he accuses her of being un-Christian in her vengeful pursuit of her father’s killer. They then trade Bible passages back and forth, and she of course comes out on top.

You wrote, “[T]here is a gratuitous portrayal of “white racism” in a scene where an Indian is hanged along with two white men.”

In the Coen brothers movie, the two condemned whites each make last statements before the hangman puts the hood over their heads. But as soon as the Indian starts to speak, the hangman puts the hood over him, muffling his voice, and immediately proceeds to hang all three men. This depiction of benighted racism gets a laugh from the audience. In the book, the Indian who is about to be hanged says, “I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man.”

Mattie reflects upon this, comparing the Indian to the repentant thief crucified beside Christ who was promised salvation. I guess the Coens would have considered this kind of a downer.

LA replies:

Thanks for the details from the book. I want to read it. That’s really disgusting, that they took a Christian scene in the book, and changed it into a “white racism” scene in the movie. But here’s the good and amazing part: that was the only PC note in the entire movie.

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LA continues:

However, maybe the Coan brothers were thinking, “Since this movie we’re making is generally true to the book and avoids leftist and nihilist messages, we need to do something early in the movie to make the liberal audience feel comfortable.” So they stuck in that bit about the Indian being crudely silenced by racist whites before he was hung.

Posted June 28

Carol Iannone writes:

I can’t agree that Christianity is left out completely. In the opening narration, Mattie mentions God and his grace, and nothing is free in this world (meaning that Chaney will have to pay for his sin), and when she writes to her mother she says the author of all things watches over me. It may be less than in the first movie, I can’t quite remember now, but it is there.

The Indian thing was clear leftwing propaganda and contrary to the book, we learn from your reader. It’s almost reassuring to know that the Coen brothers are still awful in some aspects, although their respect for the material did make them turn out an overall fine film.

I am going to read the book, and I’ll bet that that outhouse scene was the Coen brothers’ idea and not in the book.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 23, 2011 10:50 AM | Send

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