The Coens’ film of True Grit is a sort of “revisionist”-revisionist Western.
The Western as a genre has always been evolving, frequently alternating between being driven by historical and literary source material (The Covered Wagon, Cimarron, Shane) and the star-driven Westerns (films with Tom Mix, William S. Hart, Harry Carey, John Wayne). The genre had already “died” after about 1931, when it became almost the exclusive property of the Saturday morning kiddie matinee (with the exception of DeMille’s prestige The Plainsman in 1936), but was revived in 1939 with the release of John Ford’s Stagecoach, which made John Wayne an A-list star. The genre continued to evolve in the coming two decades – growing increasingly darker, with deeper character study, and finally – by the time of The Searchers in 1956 – questioning the very theme of revenge that had been a backbone of so many Western stories.
By the time the first screen version of True Grit was released in 1969, it was already seen as something of a “return” to a genre that had largely changed shape, especially in the wake of the Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” trilogy. Starring John Wayne, and directed by a stalwart studio craftsman – Henry Hathaway – the film was a welcome return to the genre – a revenge story in the classic tradition – and it was perhaps that feeling of familiarity in an otherwise tumultuous year for Hollywood that helped earn Wayne his one and only Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn.
The Western has continued to change shape quite a bit since 1969. There were the revisionist Westerns of the early 70s (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man), the parodies (Support Your Local Sheriff, Blazing Saddles) and eventually the return to the genre in the guise of gentler, “purer” vision of the West (Dances with Wolves). Of course, the Western has never really disappeared from television, whether in the form of “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” or TV movies starring the likes of Tom Selleck and Chuck Norris, and of course the genre received a big boost with the series “Deadwood”, starring Jim Beaver. Perhaps, as Janet Staiger suggested, what all of this goes to show is that the Western, like all genres, is really just continually blending and morphing with elements of other genres, in which case trying to pinpoint a “pure” example of the Western genre becomes pointless.
Which brings us to the Coens’ film of True Grit. Part revisionist Western, and part Classical throwback, the film works surprisingly well, thanks in no small part to the quirkiness of the Coens’ direction (their style is much more subdued here than usual, but still present in key ways). The performance of Jeff Bridges is rather remarkable, too. He’s no larger-than-life personality like John Wayne, but he takes the role of Rooster Cogburn and turns it into a real character. Part of the skill in his performance is how well he blends gruffness, humor and even sentiment, often within the same scene. In her big-screen debut, Hailee Steinfeld is perfectly cast as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who seeks out US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man possessing – she is told – “true grit”, to help her get revenge on Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot and killed her father.
So far, a conventional “revenge” setup. What’s interesting, though, is the way in which Mattie becomes a character of equal importance in the film’s narrative, rather than just a catalyst for the events of the narrative. The story, in fact, is told through her eyes as an adult, giving it all a poignant touch. Both headstrong and determined, she insists on accompanying Cogburn on his journey, since she is paying his salary and demands to see justice served. Cogburn is reluctant, and in fact starts off on the journey without her, but she catches up with him, much to the chagrin of a Texas ranger, LeBeouf (Matt Damon) who is also pursuing Tom Chaney for his own reasons and has joined forces with Rooster Cogburn to bring him in. The story takes a negative view of revenge, demonstrating the senselessness and danger of it, albeit nowhere near the same extent as a film like The Searchers.
Like so many Hollywood “remakes”, the publicity for the film feels it needs to justify its existence by emphasizing that it’s truer to the book, a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, and so on. This is one of the few remakes that does not need such justification, as the film works on its own terms. Presumably, this promotional aspect is partly to help convince people that they’re not just watching a “new version of an old John Wayne movie”, but that it’s a unique work on its own terms. It is, but of course, it’s also hard to escape the influence of the earlier version.
The second half of the film is not without its problems, however. There are a few moments that feel just too convenient, including one cliché of the action film that just refuses to die: that is, the moment when the protagonist is cornered by the villain during a confrontation, and there is absolutely no possible escape, when just at the last possible moment, there is an eleventh-hour rescue by another character. How many times have we seen the set-up, for instance, where the protagonist is just about to be shot, point blank, by the villain, and when we hear the gun shot that we assume is coming from the villain’s weapon, the villain slumps over dead, and behind him we see the protagonist’s friend aiming his gun. As clichéd as this moment sounds, there is a similar moment in True Grit, and I must admit I found myself almost taken out of the film by this scene, because it’s simply such a lazy way of getting the protagonist out of danger.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, what struck me most about the film is that it is something of a “revisionist”-revisionist Western, essentially circling back to the Classical approach, both in its themes and in its style. The Coens make masterful use of long shots, encompassing the beauty of the scenery, and allowing the action to play out in well-staged action scenes that take full advantage of the choreography of the actors within the frame. The beauty of the American west is captured in a series of breathtaking shots that take on an epic quality rarely seen in contemporary films.
True Grit is a rare film from Hollywood these days. It manages to work creatively within the Classical style, to tell an interesting story in interesting visual terms, and to present living, breathing characters enhanced through performances of truly great actors. It is a tribute to, and a demonstration of, the versatility of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose personal style never intrudes on the overall vision they achieve with this film.