Monday, January 3, 2011

Joel and Ethan Coen | True Grit

by Douglas Messerli

Joel and Ethan Coen (writers and directors) (based on a novel by Charles Portis) True Grit / 2010

If I have several times in these pages chided the Coen brothers for their sophomoric cynicism and exaggerated characterizations of the human species, I have also noted time and again their brilliant gifts as directors, particularly when they work, as they have here and as they did in No Country for Old Men, with pre-existing sources. In both cases the sensibilities of the authors nicely match the Coens' viewpoints. But the darkness of these films are far more profound than the shallow nose-thumbings that often occur in the Coen’s more comic works.

Indeed, I believe True Grit—despite Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey's proclamation in today’s paper that this film (like many others this year) is far “nicer” in manner and tone than their earlier No Country for Old Men—is their most horrifying to date. For in the earlier film, chaos and destruction was meted out by the evil villain; in last year’s A Serious Man, the sufferings endured by the hero were obviously the "gift" of a wrathful God. But in True Grit it is the so called “good people,” as well as the villains, who kill.

True, the evil Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) begins it, killing Mattie Ross’ father. But we soon recognize that in this Arkansas frontier world of an "eye for an eye" philosophy, death or, at least, its image, is something no one can escape. From the moment the grieving 14-year old daughter enters the town to identify her father’s body and send the corpse on its way back to her home, Mattie (excellently realized by Hallie Steinfeld) is faced with death. Having to pay almost everything she has for the embalming and shipping of the body, she is forced to sleep the first night, like Oliver Twist, in a coffin, sleeping beside three cadaverous criminals who, a few minutes after her arrival in town, were hung in the main square. When she finally does find other lodging, she must share the bed with an old woman whose dead sleep reveals that she is soon to become a corpse herself.

None of this, however, truly fazes this intense moppet, and we soon discover that like most of those around her, when it comes to facing annihilation, she has a heart of stone. For Mattie is determined to get revenge, to track down the man who killed her father, presumed now to be in Indian Territory, a jurisdiction of federal marshals who are few in number and busy with larger crimes. Spouting the gospel as if she were a child-preacher out a Flannery O’Connor tale, Mattie doesn’t even blink in her forward motion of righteous wrath. Unlike the 1969 movie version of True Grit, which significantly softened this figure’s indignation, the Coens transform her into a pint-sized prophet utterly determined to accomplish what she believes she is destined to do.

When told that U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (played in the original by John Wayne, and here by Jeff Bridges) is the meanest of men she might chose to lead her on the chase, Mattie checks out a local trial wherein she hears testimony to his murderous ways. Cogburn, however, is not just a murderer—or, as some might prefer to describe him, a successful sheriff—but he is a serious drunk (ridiculously euphemized by suggesting he likes to “pop a cork”), and Mattie has not only to get around his reluctance to the chase but his questionable ability to accomplish it. Part of the film’s humor lies in her stubborn maneuvering of Cogburn and in his determination to keep her from attempting to join him in the task. Against her desire, Cogburn teams up with another man, LaBoeuf (hilariously played by Matt Damon), a roughly mustachioed and spur- jangling Texas Ranger who is after Chaney for a different murder and a large reward. Both try to sneak away early in the morning before Mattie can join them, but she is soon hot on their trail and thoroughly demonstrates her “true grit” by fording the river on horseback.

In the Coens' telling, the three potential killers—thoroughly revealing, as New York Times critic Manhola Dargis pointed out, D. H. Lawrence’s postulate that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer”—now come face to face with an even greater emblem of death, the vast “out there,” the frontier itself. This is not the lush green or even picturesquely rocky landscape of most Westerns, but a bleached-out and barren world stripped of nearly everything, including the Indians. At the best the trio come across an occasional cabin or an eccentric loner such as Bear Man (Ed Corbin), a wilderness doctor cloaked in the entire pelt of a bear with head attached. In this world, death looms everywhere. And, as the two men--the grumpy and always woozy Cogburn and the bragging, self-centered LaBoeuf--inevitably turn against one another, Mattie is put into the position of a scolding, cajoling guide, leading them, as much as they lead her, into harm’s way.

I don’t know how anyone might describe a film that shows a villain’s fingers being cut off, the knife then thrust into his heart, and presents a scene a few minutes later in which Cogburn shoots not only the robbers but LaBoeuf (it is debatable, given his obvious skill with a gun combined with his limited vision—he has only one eye—whether it was intentional or not) as being “nice.” But the directors have gotten to the heart of Portis’ fiction and come closer to the truth of the American west than most Westerns other than those by director Budd Boetticher. Without the controls of society, it is not a nice world, and Mattie, despite her determination and her own killer instincts—it is she who finally must face down her father’s murder and shoot him dead—ultimately learns that such an unforgiving world can only end in loss.

While both LaBoeuf and Cogburn take bullets, surviving nonetheless, Mattie, falling down into a sink hole, must face nature itself, in the form of a true symbol of the evil of her and the others' acts, by being bitten by a poisonous snake. Even a mad rush across the starlit plane cannot entirely make her whole again; she loses her horse and one arm. We later discover that her strong-willed ways perhaps also left her in a life of loneliness, for she never marries.

Although Mattie does not question her acts or attempt to justify her mad determination to gun down her father’s killer, we must, at some point, judge her, just as the people of the city had judged Rooster Cogburn earlier in the film. And we realize that in her fanatical grittiness there something heroic yet ridiculous, that she is a figure at once comic and tragic, similar to US history.

Los Angeles, New Year’s Day, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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