True Grit: A Spielberg Moment

PUNISHMENT COMES ONE WAY OR ANOTHER.

truegrit10The original True Grit (1969) is a very good Western, well directed by Henry Hathaway, featuring a script by Marguerite Roberts and a part for John Wayne that finally rendered him an Oscar. Still, the Charles Portis novel that inspired the film is also highly regarded and when the Coen brothers decided to have a go at the story, they wanted to stay much closer to it than Roberts had. It’s not a huge difference… but the sheer passion and level of quality pushes the film slightly ahead of its predecessor.

In 1880, the 14-year-old Mattie Ross’s (Hailee Steinfeld) father is murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired hand. Leaving her grieving mother and kid brother behind, Mattie goes to Forth Smith, Arkansas looking to hire someone to hunt down Chaney who has taken up with a gang of criminals. She decides on Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a rough, tough, one-eyed U.S. Marshal who drinks too much but has a reputation for being merciless. At first, Rooster can’t take Mattie seriously and declines the offer, but eventually changes his mind; a fierce negotiator, Mattie even convinces him to bring her along for the hunt.

They’re joined by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also wishes to see Chaney hang, but for another murder that he committed in Texas. Rooster and LaBoeuf don’t share the same approach to practicing the law and their burgeoning conflict complicates the hunt for Chaney… and puts Mattie square in the middle.

Finding the right girl
The title is apt for both lead characters. When we meet Rooster, he’s getting old but we get a sense of his colorful past, something he’s also willing to share with his young cohort during the manhunt; he never stops talking. He may have many flaws, but when push comes to shove Rooster will fight till the end. But Mattie is no wide-eyed kid; her father has raised her into an independent, tough, strong-willed person and we see constant examples of her true grit throughout the film.

One of the key accomplishments of this production is finding the right, not too Hollywood precocious, girl to play Mattie. Newcomer Steinfeld finds the exact right tone; helping her become a believable Mattie, both in action scenes and in conversations with grown men whom she finds anything but intimidating is a tremendous victory by the Coens. Steinfeld certainly stands her own ground in comparison with her far more famous co-stars. Bridges’s approach to Rooster Cogburn isn’t blindingly original (he even borrows Wayne’s eye-patch, which was not an invention of Portis’s), but he’s highly effective as the gruff lawman. He and Damon (also great as the by-the-book, fringed-leathered Ranger) share a few funny moments where they clash, most memorably in a hilarious routine where a heavily inebriated Rooster tries to show LaBoeuf that he doesn’t need two eyes to shoot straight.

That scene is staged to perfection by cinematographer Roger Deakins who once again outdoes himself, composing his pictures like gorgeous postcards from the Western genre. Carter Burwell’s ingenious contribution is basing his score on 19th century hymns, primarily “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, which is a touching, impressively arranged choice.

The film depends to a large degree on its simple but genuine emotions. The Coens want to make us laugh at Rooster’s drunken behavior, bite our fingernails at the showdown between our heroes and Chaney, and perhaps cry a little in the end. The film is executive-produced by Steven Spielberg and one might call this the Coens’ Spielberg moment. It isn’t profound, but a rollicking adventure.

True Grit 2010-U.S. 110 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin. Written, directed and edited by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Novel: Charles Portis. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Jeff Bridges (Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews… Domhnall Gleeson. Voice of J.K. Simmons.

BAFTA: Best Cinematography.

Last word: “It was more like doing American Shakespeare. There’s almost like an iambic pentameter, a musicality and a rhythm to the dialogue. It’s so specific that you’re working very much with what’s on the page. There’s not endless rewrites throughout production. It’s such a specific script that it’s about trying to hit certain notes, maybe an irreverent falloff at the end of a line and just how you musically sort of… that’s where the brothers were so amazing. It’s such a gift to be able to give some sort of lateral idea to an actor like, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear the musicality of the line like that.’ The scene blossoms, completely changes and becomes darkly humorous or odd or quirky or wonderful, bizarre. But it’s a very structured piece I found, in that respect. Charles Portis has such a specific vernacular of the period. It’s so authentic in my mind because most people were probably pretty illiterate back then. They were maybe schooled on the King James Bible and that really infused the way they spoke. I think a lot of westerns missed that.” (Pepper, Cinema Blend)

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