“You must pay for everything in this world,” says Mattie Ross, a line that echoes through intertwining themes of commerce and justice in the Coens’ evocative western.
Considered in the context of Carter Burwell’s stately music, and the melancholy epilogue, Mattie’s monologue also resonates with the brothers’ suggestion that the act of vengeance costs the avenger a bit of themselves – an eye, an arm, innocence.
Aiming at the heart of the revenge narrative that flows through so many American fictions, this Grit flaunts its gravity upfront.
Isn’t it miraculous, then, that so many people paid to see it? While many fine recent westerns (The Assassination Of Jesse James, say) failed to square acclaim with commercial gain, True Grit topped the US box office. That’s not bad for a genre surely even more of an anachronism than when Henry Hathaway’s original emerged in 1969, just after Peckinpah’s ’Nam-scarred The Wild Bunch made John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn look like a romanticised throwback.
It’s not feel-good stuff either, its narrative of revenge/ justice doggedly pursued climaxing in sombre reflection, not post-Bin Laden celebration. Add a script dense in archaic dialogue, and the Coens’ re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel seems quixotic even by the standards of filmmakers who once thought it sensible to cast Tom Hanks in a remake of The Ladykillers.
Its nimble achievement is to be simultaneously deeper, darker and more entertaining than Hathaway’s trot-along. Restored from Portis’ novel, after Hathaway rejected it, is the retrospective narrative, casting innocence in the shade of saddened experience as a middle-aged Mattie recalls how, at 14 (Hailee Steinfeld), she hired one-eyed, booze-pickled US Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down the man who killed her father.
The story she tells is rollicking but one of men hung high, faces shot open, ugly varmints, snake bites – Old Testamental innocence lost, the parched landscape less redolent of John Ford majesty than Cormac McCarthy’s unvarnished west.
Bleak but brilliant
The Coens’ west is a cruel place, where human endeavour is futile and best-laid plans go hooves-up; terrain familiar from Blood Simple, Fargo and No Country For Old Men.
The thrust and grab of capitalism contrasted with the argument that you can’t buy your way everywhere; Mattie even debates the divide between man-made laws and immutable morality. This is a grey area between human intent and fate’s messier yet more decisive hand: Coen country, in short, which can seem like no place for one-eyed old men, let alone teenage girls.
Yet Grit tears briskly over its parched earth, saddling up with the old-school pleasures of character and taut plotting. It’s a near-Biblical epic on the sly, restoring Portis’ mythical heft, but, at 110 minutes, the reins are tight. The dialogue comes at a similar clip, shorn of contractions; as Mattie spars with a horse trader, the Coens’ obvious verbal relish sweeps us along.
Likewise, casting and character are purely pleasurable. Wayne played Cogburn as John Wayne: Screen Icon, but Bridges puffs out his chest and slumps into a baccy’n’booze fug of frog-belch voice, snow-thick beard and mean eye patch, his good eye the proverbial pisshole in snow.
Wayne’s podgy, avuncular indulgence gives way to Bridges’ casual cruelty: witness the scene where Cogburn kicks a Native American kid smaller than his boot off a porch.
It’s an imperious and bracingly reckless performance, with a fine foil in Matt Damon’s “ever-stalwart” LaBoeuf, the dandy lawman to Cogburn’s drunkard, his facial fuzz perched luxuriously atop his lip next to Bridges’ untamed forest. Even among that pedigree, however, Steinfeld almost steals it with a controlled intelligence to match Ross’ precocity.
The Coens’ club of indelible female characters (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer, Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, Holly Hunter’s Penny McGill) just expanded its membership.
Feel the grain
The result is a wintry film whose depth gains audience on the back of sheer pleasure, enriched by comic flushes, surreal visions (a bear on horseback?) and a final rush of reins-between-the-teeth action – all integrated with finesse. And there’s still a surprise to come: an elegiac close packing a blind-siding emotional force as it steers the story back to Mattie’s voiceover from the soft-as-snow opening.
Shame the special features don’t do it justice. A 30-minute Portis doc features on the BD extras – unavailable for review – but SD inclusions ‘The Cast’ (pure puffery) and ‘Mattie’s True Grit’ – a likeable but moppet-sized interview with Steinfeld – are mere nuggets.
Better but still brief are two featurettes highlighting the loving attention to grain and detail – costume designer Mary Zophres talking history, hats and hooped skirts, while set designers discuss turning Granger, Texas, into Fort Smith, minus CGI.
This is a kind of filmmaking often thought long gone. Slick genre Xerox? Not at all: the Coens return to the source of the western – the formative west itself – and the revenge narrative in order to rebuild both anew, their foundations the sturdy stuff of well-crafted storytelling. That’ll always be worth paying to see.