True Grit would seem to offer all the ingredients of a classic Cohen Brothers film experience, both for the auteurs and their audience. It's a period piece. There are characters who speak with a grandiloquence quite foreign to our verbally-starved, texting present. There is a genre with which to toy, interesting mayhem to depict. And there's a guy who rides around under a bear skin, the animal's former head flopped over his own, his halting speech reminiscent of a cartoon character. He's called Bear Man. So, are these just the wiseacre Cohens of yesteryear? Not quite.
If you've seen the t.v commercial advertising True Grit - the one featuring Johnny Cash in full brimstone mode, singing "God's Gonna Shoot You Down" - you might get the idea that this version of the film is quite a manly, ass-kicking affair, full of gunplay and reckoning. Of course, that's the idea. That's marketing. But the film's first scene, in which a 40-year-old Mattie speaks in voiceover of the killing of her father some 25 years previous sets a very different tone. And it's more than just a pretty prologue.
It's been a good year or so for independent young heroines in film. Roaming Mattie Ross' home state of Arkansas in the early 21st century was the intrepid Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) in 2010's Winter's Bone, arguably the finest American film of the past year. Released in the states early in 2010 was Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank. Like True Grit, Fish Tank featured a newcomer in Katie Jarvis as its fierce protagonist. Ms. Jarvis was a natural as Mia and the same can be said for Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross.
Steinfeld's performance is all the more impressive for the anachronistic language she is required to bring to life in True Grit. Jarvis was great as Mia, but she didn't have the extra burden of speaking in Elizabethan English. If Steinfeld were any less convincing as the precocious Mattie, lines like "He has abandoned me to a congress of louts,"speaking of Cogburn's quitting the chase for her father's killer, would make her and a lot of the film ridiculous. As is the case with Mattie, she establishes her intelligence and tenacity early on, reminding us only later of a vulnerability more consistent with her age. Steinfeld is the heart of the film and she's wonderful.
Mattie purchases the services of U.S. Marshall Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn, described by the sheriff of Fort Smith as the meanest of three available marshals. Their first negotiation is as unceremonious as it is unsuccessful, occurring as it does through an outhouse door, the marshall ultimately shooing her away, assuring her that the facilities will be occupied for some time. A trial at which Cogburn is questioned about his penchant for shooting first and not really asking questions at all, assures Mattie that Rooster is her man, that he possesses the eponymous true grit. The trial also offers an opportunity for Joe Stevens to ham it up in the grand tradition of theatrical southern lawyers on screen.
Before Mattie can transact all of her necessary business - most of that business at the expense of local merchant Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), who finds out that the young woman is even more the "close trader" than was her late father - and get out of town, she's approached by a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been pursuing Tom Chaney through several states and as many aliases. The two have a contentious, even slightly flirtatious encounter. LaBoeuf metes out some of the best of the Portis dialog, which coming from him seems a matching accessory to his fancy spurs and fringed jacket - the lawman is something of a dandy. Frustrated in his attempt to negotiate his way into joining Mattie's pursuit of Chaney, he tells her, "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin' I gave some thought to stealin' a kiss...though you are very young, and sick....an unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt." Mattie's typically sharp response: "One would be as unpleasant as the other."
As Cogburn and LaBoeuf cross the river into the Chocktaw Nation (present day Oklahoma), followed by Mattie, one of the great pleasures of this True Grit is the sheer beauty of the enterprise. Much of this can be attributed to the work of Roger Deakins, who has photographed many of the Cohens' films, notably No Country for Old Men, which, like True Grit, utilized the arid landscapes of Texas and New Mexico. Mr. Deakins has had a long and distinguished career. If you haven't seen his painterly work in another contemporary western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, run, do not walk to....your computer and place it in your Netflix queue.
Deakins and the Cohens obviously work well together. Joel and Ethan Cohen maintain not only their appreciation for rich dialog, but their mastery of perspective. We see this in an upward shot of Mattie silhouetted in a snake-infested cave, or from her perspective as she and the lawmen ride away from a cabin where corpses are left in their wake, the withdrawing camera perfectly demonstrating her point of view and dread. There is also a classically Cohen moment when Mattie is told by Cogburn to "clamber up there" and cut down a body hanging high on an arching tree trunk. We see the body plummet from above and then the recoil of the tree trunk, this echoing a triple hanging that Mattie observed in Fort Smith.
Returning the focus of the story to Mattie Ross is perhaps doubly fortuitous. There is the matter of faithfulness to the Portis novel. There is also the question of the cantankerous man behind the eye patch. Jeff Bridges, of course, recently won an Oscar for his role in Crazy Heart. That film's Bad Blake, another throwback of a man, skilled at his work as he is prone to drink (and drink), was one Bridges filled out more thoroughly and convincingly. As Cogburn, he scrapes the dry river riverbed at the bottom of his vocal range to produce his rich, dusty verbiage. But one is conscious of his having to reach ever so slightly for the sort growl that Nick Nolte produces by merely opening his mouth. Lost amid the excitement of lively language and interesting turns in plot is the fact that Jeff Bridges is really not a great deal better than adequate as Rooster Cogburn. I'm guessing that he distinguishes himself well enough from John Wayne's Oscar-winning performance in the same role; I haven't seen the 1969 version.
Bridges still brings Rooster to ornery life more than most actors might. The fault, minor though it may be, lies also with the story. Mattie is warned by the sheriff of Fort Smith that Cogburn "likes to pull a cork." The discovery of a case of whiskey - this in the same scene when the more reticent of two men being questioned by Rooster makes like a Benihana chef with his cohort's fingers - and the marshal's subsequent downing of it, bottle by bottle, followed by his quitting the chase at the end of his bender, seems slightly arbitrary, particularly in light of the heroics to come. When he practically quacks to Mattie and La Boeuf one rainy night in the middle of Indian territory, "I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop...I bow out!" you don't really believe it.
More than the growling Cogburn, it's actually Matt Damon's performance as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf that helps set the tone on which the Cohens' film settles and with which it succeeds. I'm not sure how much Texas actually resides in his drawl, but Damon the actor is, as LaBoeuf says of himself, "ever-stalwart." He's sort of a character movie star in a way that Jimmy Stewart was, minus the mannerisms. It would be interesting to see Damon in more complex roles, such as those Stewart played in the Anthony Mann westerns of the 1950's. Here, the squareness of his 40-year-old countenance providing appropriate solidity to the ranger, he strikes a balance between the LaBoeuf's laughable vanity and his earnestness, just as the film settles quite well somewhere between cartoonish western and simple revenge story.
Just when it seems the chase for Frank Ross' killer is lost, when Rooster has given up and LaBoeuf has again gone off on his own, Mattie sees the villain across a river one morning. Even the pursued Tom Chaney, whom Josh Brolin plays with a somewhat apish bearing, even he measures his modest words carefully and speaks usually without contractions, making statements in a nearly Suessian cadence like, "And I think I will not go, now how do you like that?" Taken by Chaney, Mattie is in the custody of Lucky Ned Pepper, old nemesis of Rooster Cogburn. Like Cheney, Pepper is anything but the rote outlaw, a testament to both the creativity of Portis and the Cohens. Barry Pepper as his namesake outlaw is but one of many felicitous casting choices, as was the case with the aforementioned Dakin Matthews, both men who sport their period hair and unfurl the lanky dialog with equal relish.
That ride across the frigid terrain beneath a clear, starry sky seems at once of the Cohens and not, much as was the case with the final frames of A Serious Man. By this time, the supposedly reprobate Cogburn has taken on the gravity of a father trying to save his child, and the film through this magical, surprisingly tender sequence has returned to the realm of storybook.
Scott Rudin, who produced True Grit, said this of the film: "The patois of the characters, the love of language that permeates the whole film, makes it very much a piece with their other films, but it is the least ironic in many regards." True Grit might well be their least ironic effort. It certainly achieves a tenderness unseen in their varied, impressive body of work. There's probably no cause to worry that Joel and Ethan Cohen might become too earnest - one looks beneath Rooster's eyepatch and period clothes and is reminded that The Dude abides - but for these last three films it's been a pleasure to see them be more serious men.