If you have memories of the 1969 True Grit film with John Wayne and Kim Darby, try to forget them. This new screen version of one of the best novels of the last century, written by Charles Portis in 1968, owes no debt to director Henry Hathaway’s version. In fact, filmmaker siblings Ethan and Joel Coen never saw the first film version.
Their inspiration comes from different sources: primarily from the pages of Charles Portis with all his writerly metaphors, Biblical references and dark humor; the Coens’ own surreal and violent imagination; and the awesome landscape of winter in Arkansas and Oklahoma, captured in breathtaking imagery by long-time Coen collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins.
It’s sometime in the 1870s in Arkansas (hard to believe, it’s only 140 years ago). The memories of the vicious Civil War are still keen and many men are still fighting it. Everyone’s Protestant and the Bible is as real to many as the newspaper listing of the latest cotton prices. The Indian Territory is a vast area, now in Oklahoma, that was given to the Choctaw, and few of them make little if any contact with the growing numbers of white settlers. Law enforcement, what there is of it, is in the hands of the U.S. Marshals and hanging is often the end result for many men, even the ones who had money for a lawyer.
Into this world strides 14-year-old pigtailed Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a Bible thumping righteous believer from Yell County. She comes to Ft. Ross to “avenge her father’s blood.” He was shot dead by a low-life coward named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who had been her father’s farmhand. Chaney killed “the finest man who ever lived,” then stole his money, his horse, and two California gold pieces given to him by his family in Monterey. Chaney escapes to the Indian Territory and is assumed to be seeking refuge with nasty outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang.
To Mattie’s disgust, it seems no one is going to bring Tom Chaney to justice. Convinced that the “wicked flee when no one pursueth” (Proverbs 28:1), Mattie is determined to take matters into her own hands.
Mattie missed all the verses in the Bible about forgiveness. And the concept of justice is a little blurry, too. She wants vengeance and nothing will stop her from getting it. She needs a champion to help her, a man with “true grit.” She gets a knight in muddy armor–Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozing curmudgeon, who looks like Grover Cleveland, with one eye, a wrathful tongue and a reputation for shooting first and checking the legal niceties later. Rumor has it that in the war he rode with the infamous confederate guerillas known as Quantrill’s Raiders, which explains his distinctive strategy on horseback when he is outnumbered–he bites the reins in his teeth to leave both hands free to shoot a pistol out of each one.
At first Rooster wants to dismiss Hattie like the nagging gnat she has become. But Mattie gives Rooster hard cash, with the promise of $50.00 more when he delivers Chaney to the hangman’s noose or shoots him.
Joining them is Mr. Jim LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a young dandy with shiny spurs and a nifty mustache, who is after Chaney for killing a Texas politician and his dog. There’ s a big reward from Texas so Mr. LaBoeuf is extremely motivated.
The three set out and the bickering and insults begin. Along the way, interrupted by one mutilation, a midnight attack, discovery of a hanged man, a few random killings, justified or not, and lots of liquor, Cogburn tells Mattie the sad tale of his ex-wives and his wastrel life. Mile after mile the countryside moves slowly past them, the snow coming down like downy feathers. Though in Indian Territory, there aren’t any Indians to be seen, as if even the Indians don’t want to be in the desolate Indian Territory.
Just as they did in No Country for Old Men (novel by Cormac McCarthy), the Coen Brothers based True Grit heavily on the source material. So the story, and especially the dazzling dialogue and the quirky humor, is right out of the Portis novel. There’s one eerie exception. Mattie and Cogburn run into a bizarre Coen Brothers creature. A mad wandering dentist/shaman, dressed in a bear skin, greets them in the forest like a slow-trotting messenger to Hades.
Just as The King’s Speech was a perfect movie, so, too, is True Grit. Though it might be too violent for a few, most audience members should find the film entertaining, meaningful, gorgeous and moving. All the performances are layered, full of tales of past woes and future dreams, as real and revealing as any death-laden journey would shape its characters. Notable is Hailee Steinfeld, only 13 at the time of filming, making a pitch-perfect debut and holding her own with veterans two to three times her age.
Along with the magnificent cinematography, the music by Carter Burwell, another long-time Coen associate, takes a seeming western-themed journey and transcends it to the level of myth. The sound track, based on the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (echoes from Charles Laughton’s terrifying 1955 B&W film, Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum), never lets us forget that behind the clouds there is an all-powerful deity judging the actions of human beings.
“You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another,” Mattie pronounces. “The only thing free is the grace of God.” As Mattie willfully takes her vengeance on Tom Chaney, she falls into a deep hole, a hellish black pit full of writhing snakes. Though Rooster gives her the kiss of life by trying to suck out the snakes’ venom, the horrible creatures have put their mark on her. For the rest of her life, Mattie will abide in the grace of God and wear the price of vengeance on her arm.