by Jennifer Boulden
At its entertaining core, True Grit is a story of opposites thrown together in conflicting dichotomies. The story begins in the last bastion of law and order before Indian Territory, a place of both murder and retribution, my adopted hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. There the salty Marshal Rooster Cogburn replete with his legendary vices teams up with a young girl whose prim manners, innocence and idealism stand in oxymoronic contrast to everything he represents. The one trait they share is grit. These two spirited characters have courage, resolve and undiluted gumption in spades. It turns out they, and the film, also have a surprising amount of heart.
To its credit, True Grit is a hard film to pinhole. It’s a Western where action for once sits back in the saddle while character development charges forward, idiosyncrasies blasting. It’s a family film that older girls and boys alike will enjoy, but far from a Disneyfied one, more akin to a PG-13 Deadwood. Like most of the Coens’ work, it is full of iconic imagery and remarkable dialogue that is laugh-out-loud funny and highly quotable, but see the film with the wrong audience and you might miss the humor entirely.
The source material and film are almost impossible to separate. Unlike the 1969 Henry Hathaway film Joel and Ethan Coen’s elegant adaptation of Charles Portis’ bestselling novel keeps almost all the story beats, characterizations, eccentricities and amusingly formal speech intact. Though it sounds eerily Coenesque, 90 percent of the dialogue in their film is straight off Portis’ pages. This strange Western family film is in some ways a great change from the Coens’ original work, and yet fits in naturally with the their style and sensibilities. They get True Grit and they do it right.
Mattie Ross is a precocious, educated Arkansas girl who wholly takes after her father rather than her weak-willed mother. Fourteen years old, Mattie does not suffer fools. When her father is killed 70 miles from home in Fort Smith, Mattie’s grief manifests itself as obsessive, determined competence. Having lost the most important person in her life, she immediately dispenses with sentiment and focuses instead on hunting down his killer and seeking violent retribution for what he has done. Someone has to take charge and she’s the only one who will care enough to do the job right. Mattie hires the meanest Deputy U.S. Marshal she can find to escort her into the Choctaw Nation and bring back their man.
Played by Jeff Bridges, Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn is a gravelly man whose arguably homicidal Marshal’s reputation first brings him to Mattie’s attention. Bridges leaves his vanity behind and throws himself into the role with gruff relish. This is the darkly colorful Rooster of Portis’ novel, a hard man saturated in whiskey, dirt and bad memories. Equally entertaining and repulsive, a one-eyed sharpshooter and an incorrigible drunk, he’s just the man Mattie needs.
Bridges redefines John Wayne’s famous Rooster Cogburn with a disconcerting mutter-growl that at first seems like a hammy version of that other iconic Arkansas character, Sling Blade’s Karl Childers. But Bridges sells it, and we grow to know him through the various cadences he voices and how they pair at any given moment with the mesmerizing glint in his one good eye. Whether a bumbling, swaggering inebriate, a steely-nerved lawman, or a lonely raconteur enjoying for once having a good listener on hand, Bridges’ Rooster fills the film with his outsize presence. His scenes with Mattie reveal a growing respect and paternal protectiveness for her irritating spunk, and it is in those scenes of unlikely bonding that the film is at its most touching.
Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is unforgettable. Few actresses of any age could articulate Portis’ deliciously stiff, arcane language without sacrificing clarity, humor or subtext. She does this all while slipping into an appealingly slight Southern accent and appearing in virtually every scene of the film. Preternaturally poised in the beginning, Mattie’s drive for justice has a compulsion to it that at times betrays how much she is grieving inside, despite her apparent no-nonsense attitude. It’s a tough act to pull off, but Steinfeld’s acting is every bit as confident as playing Mattie Ross requires. In her first major film role she’s already a pro.
Filling out the trio of adventurers is Matt Damon as the unintentionally comic Texas Ranger whose vanities and ego rattle more loudly than his flashy spurs. A be-fringed Damon plays the respect-coveting LaBouef to perfection from beast to hero. Through Cogburn’s and LaBouef’s competitiveness, it becomes clear that the ghost of the Civil War still looms large over these mens’ lives. This sense of epic struggle not yet forgotten or forgiven contributes to the undercurrent of melancholia in the film. These are tough men who have seen and contributed to more than their share of suffering and those tensions are never far below the surface, making the humor Damon brings all the more welcome.
Even the name True Grit contains the DNA of its magical formula, perceived opposites fused into an unlikely something greater. “True” speaks to the slow, formal flavors and cadences of the Old South of the Arkansas where Mattie has lived her life, never leaving her family’s Dardanelle farm for longer than a local camping trip, and to the matter-of-fact Deep South religion that infuses her life. “Grit” of course represents the harsh and dangerous frontier right outside Fort Smith’s city limits, the only world where Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn is at ease. It is here in Fort Smith that the Old South meets the New West, and in Fort Smith that these two characters who rank among the most memorable in literature and film, first come together.
It was no casual choice that Charles Portis set his most famous novel in Fort Smith. In True Grit and in history, Fort Smith is a place of sin and retribution. Mattie’s father experiences the former firsthand before the film opens as he is killed for intervening in a gambling dispute. The crowd Mattie joins to witness the hangings of three criminals sentenced by Judge Parker’s court illustrates the other side of the legendary border town, the harsh and necessary justice that would make it famous. For Mattie, Fort Smith is where her father’s murder happened and where his killer must die for his sins. It is the only place that will do.
The period detail in True Grit is exquisitely rough if imprecise. Fort Smith in the late 1870s would likely have looked even larger, dirtier, and busier, with considerably less blonde brick. The production design however is otherwise right on the money and a huge improvement over the 1969 film, which portrayed Arkansas’ gateway to the west as a peaceful mountain village in the Rockies. True Grit’s costume design was informed by extensive historical research and it shows; every frayed-with-age buttonhole grounds the film in the realities of the unglamorous frontier. The accents are solid, and happily do not all sound the same; Fort Smith was a crossroads for people from all over America, and the diversity of accents represented here reflects that.
As a stand-in for Western Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma, the plains and forests of West Texas and New Mexico are passable. They may not look exactly as Indian Territory would have in the 1870s, but few will know or care. It’s a decent approximation, and a beautiful one, particularly as shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. His camerawork is in a subtler, more muted mode than he sometimes favors, full of desaturated open landscapes that convey the huge territory their search covers. Flashes of profound, mercurial beauty between key scenes leave you yearning for more.
Just as Mattie refuses to display the expected emotions at the death of her father, the film’s ending also eschews any predictable sentimentality. Intact from the book, it’s a beautiful, perfect ending in some ways, emotionally unfulfilling in others. It will likely be a point of contention among audiences, as the Coens’ endings so often are. Told by a grown-up Mattie whose temperament at 40 is just as averse to affectation as it was at 14, it works.
Carter Burwell’s unobtrusive score based on 19th century hymns, particularly “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms,” also suggests these the film’s core dichotomies. Recalling the chilling whistled refrain in Night of the Hunter, the tune pits the pragmatic religious conviction Mattie carries inside her against the challenge of trust itself. Mattie’s admitted frailty and trust in another father figure is part of her own catharsis; in the climax she quite literally leans on Rooster’s everlasting arms. It’s such lovely subtleties throughout that elevate the same entertaining high adventure tale that’s been beloved for decades to nuanced art in the hands of the Coens.
Note: Jennifer Boulden, who resides in Arkansas is, a free lance writer who has penned several other reviews for Wonders in the Dark and just recently (to great acclaim) authored a feature at “Awards Daily” on the history behind many of the settings connected to the film.