The first film version of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit, made in 1969, is a “classic” of sorts, but it was never much more than a romp, standing out from John Wayne’s flabby crop of late pictures only because it somehow rose from the pack to get him his Oscar. Almost any of the movies he made for John Ford and (especially) Howard Hawks would have been a more deserving vehicle – Wayne was capable of real subtlety and nuance, but director Henry Hathaway took the easiest route through every scene. The film slides entertainingly along of course, drawing on a strong basic premise, a cast (including Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper) with enough hindsight resonance of its own, and nice (if, again, indifferently photographed) scenery. But it rarely hints at the artistry that reportedly characterizes Portis’ work.
The Coen Brothers
The Coen Brothers’ True Grit specifically isn’t a remake of the film, but rather a return to the book. The plot is the same: a teenage girl, Mattie Ross, sets out to find the man who killed her father, employing veteran US marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down and then stubbornly insisting on going with him to see the job done; a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, is on the man’s trail as well.
I’ve acknowledged here before that the Coens aren’t too prominent in my own cinematic scheme of things; I’ve seen all their films, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the desire to see any of them twice (except maybe The Big Lebowski, for the same reasons most people watch that one again). I found the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men affected and borderline boring, and their most recent A Serious Man, while very skillfully mocking the notion of transferable meaning, duly ended up pretty meaningless. Ironically, I preferred the one that came in between, Burn after Reading, essentially another riff on the subject of how lightweight everything is, but powered by greater peppiness and an evocative Washington setting. I suppose the Coens are good at suggesting a particular thing (life itself, or a subset thereof) may be bleaker or more nonsensical or whatever than we customarily think of it as being, but their films therefore feel in a sense like endless subtractions from what we started with. Which just isn’t that galvanizing.
Their version of True Grit takes a different tack on things. Whether or not they spent much time thinking about the first film, it’s as if they set out to chip away the excess paint and ornamentation and to reclaim the original, darkly beautiful craftsmanship (I was surprised how much of the dialogue I remembered from the first film, but it rings very differently here). Hathaway’s version opened with the Ross family and dramatized the father’s murder; the Coens dispense with all of that in a voice over, commencing directly with Mattie’s arrival to claim her father’s body and to ensure justice is done. The earlier version took more time to set up the Cogburn character, placing him in a comic living arrangement with a Chinaman and a cat; here the Chinaman is barely glimpsed and the cat is absent. And so on.
The reclamation culminates in a radically different final passage (readers wary of spoilers should stop here). In both versions, the job gets done, but Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake. Wayne’s Cogburn rushes her to the nearest doctor, later seeing her fully recover to pay his fee (and a bonus for saving her life) and then accompanying her home to the family burial plot, where she says she’ll mark out a space for him. Declaring broadly that he’s not ready for it yet, he rides heroically away. In the new version, Cogburn still (barely) delivers her to the doctor, but her voice over informs us that when she woke from her coma (having lost an arm) he was gone, never claiming his fee; she receives an invitation years later to visit him at a travelling show, but he dies before she arrives, and she buries the body in the family plot.
In other words, any sense of triumph and celebration is extinguished; justice is done, but grimly and at a price. LaBoeuf and Cogburn simply pass out of the film (which somewhat reminded me of the protagonist’s startling off-screen demise in No Country for Old Men). The film doesn’t debunk notions of courage and fortitude – both men indeed demonstrate their grit at various times - but it’s skeptical of personal myths (early on, we see Cogburn skeptically cross-examined while giving testimony, and he in turn pokes at LaBoeuf’s stories, and then survives long enough to become a carnival attraction). Jeff Bridges’ interpretation of Cogburn is far less ingratiating than Wayne’s, and the film holds him at a greater remove. Likewise, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie much more starkly than Kim Darby did (the contrast between Matt Damon and Glen Campbell likely speaks for itself), and the final glimpse of the older Mattie confirms she’ll evolve into a stiff, isolated woman.
Such Small Portions
Surrounding all of this, the Coens provide none of the filigree we might expect from them; one could easily take the film to be directed by someone else, such as the Tommy Lee Jones who made The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. At this point I could get drawn into a reviewer’s version of the joke about the women who complain that the food is awful, and such small portions: notwithstanding my reservations about the Coens, I guess I initially felt some disappointment there wasn’t more of them here.
But on greater reflection, I think this may be their most mature version of the theme I referred to above. Their True Grit isn’t in the least affected or forced; they didn’t cut off the Henry Hathaway flabbiness merely to replace it with their own elaborations. This restraint supports a subtle but surprisingly comprehensive portrayal of a country and an infrastructure in formation. Already, law enforcement is tangled in competing jurisdictions and priorities; trade and commerce is a fully developed trap for the unwary. The bickering between Cogburn and LaBoeuf about their past and current allegiances feels harder-edged than in the first film. And although for now concepts of legality and individual rights are in their formative stage at best, the epilogue – again - establishes the imperfectly assimilated Rooster as a dying breed.
These concepts aren’t new of course, but True Grit suggests the Coens might be profitably evolving into a more soberly diagnostic or forensic vein. Of course, executing this project in a purely historical setting, and one well suited such stripping-down, is one thing. I wonder if they can do it in a contemporary setting.