… true grits …

True Grit, filmed by the Coen brothers in 2010, is a western with a true twist, a young girl’s quest for revenge and her determination to stick by the sides of the two pistol slingers in a manhunt through rough western country.

Mattie Ross, a composed and purposeful fourteen-year old girl, hires the grittiest Deputy Marshall she can find, scraggy, old, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, to track down and bring back alive her father’s killer, Tom Chaney.  Rooster teams up with a Texas ranger who’s after Chaney for his own reason and, since she’s paying — this girl knows money, she was her father’s bookkeeper — she insists on going along.  The two pros try to shake her but she’s courageous, resourceful and unshakable.  She’s also refined and educated and part of the film’s charm is the playoff between Mattie’s serious, formal way of speaking and the rough and ready crudity of the Western tough guys.  The little girl knows what she wants and pushes these two big men around to get it — although they aren’t always pushable.

Maddie also knows the law, as it applies to her case, and her references to it set against the law-in-his-own hands Cogburn carries an essential and significant theme of the story:  the insinuation of law and order into Wild West eye-for-an-eye anarchy; the weakening of that Western tradition in the face of “gentrification”.

The manhunt leads to dangerous situations and brutal killings and Mattie shows that as far as true grit goes, she’s every bit the match for Cogburn.  She never yields to panic in terrifying incidents when, I think, most of us would, and she emerges unscathed until, finally, and as a result of her own bravery, it looks like all is lost.  But each man, in his own, unspoken way, has come to love Mattie, the young Texas hot-head with a tenderness faintly suggesting romance, and Cogburn with a protective fatherliness.  We don’t know this fully until the chips are down and we see the lengths each man will go to save her.  There’s an epilogue in which Mattie, grown up and a successful business woman, almost manages to re-encounter the elusive Cogburn.  The Texas Ranger has faded from the picture.

The acting, with the exception of Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, isn’t as brilliant as the story.  Jeff Bridges is visually convincing as the worn, lonely bounty hunter, but his voice is monotonous — he falls back on his growl to convey complex experiences and emotions.  Matt Damon has no particular hold on the role of the daredevil Texas Ranger and seems to just walk — or ride — through the part.  Still, don’t miss this movie — the story’s just too good and it’s told well enough.

Are we arriving at maturity too late, these days?  Are there fourteen-year old girls around today like Mattie Ross?  I hope so!

… from light to dark …

There have been two major Hollywood productions of True Grit, one starring John Wayne as the sharp shooter Rooster Cogburn in 1969, and the current one with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn.  Each tells its truly great story well, based on the novel by Charles Portis.  Here are a few thoughts on differences between the 2010 True Grit and the 1969 version.

Wayne won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn but I think they must have given it to him more as a career award than for this role.  He’s quite wooden as Rooster, with a few facial expressions and a few tones of voice that he cycles through.  It’s easier to believe that Bridges could soften inside than Wayne, who’s all on the surface.  As the Texas Ranger, Glen Campbell is more exciting and individualized than Matt Damon, which sets up a tense, dynamic contrast between Cogburn and the ranger.  In the 2010 film, bland Damon seems like just a hanger-on.  As for Mattie, well — how can you choose between Kim Darbie in the 1969 movie and Hailee Steinfeld in the current one — both, in different ways, are marvelous!  Darbie is round-faced and conveys a sunny disposition behind her seriousness of purpose;  Steinfeld seems more intense.  Neither is just “cute” — thank heavens!

In some ways, the 2010 movie is like a translation of the 1969 from light into dark.  Darbie is fair and light haired, Steinfeld deeply brunette.  The earlier movie is filmed in daylight with direct camera shots, and the fast-action scenes make sense.  In 2010 the same scenes are shot at night, with oblique camera angles and surrounded by an aura of mystery, with some confusion thrown in.  Generally, the 1969 movie tells its story in a straightforward manner, like prose read in a good light.  The 2010 film is more startling and filled with forboding.  In it, Maddie spends her first night in town in an undertaker’s coffin;  in 1969, she goes straight to the boarding house.  The Texas Ranger encounters Mattie across the boarding house dinner table in the 1969 film;  in 2010, as she’s in bed and gradually waking up, she finds the man watching her.  In 1969, Maddie’s crossing the river on horseback is filmed from a distance;  in 2010, we’re right there with the struggling, splashing horse.  The 2010 film is more shadowed with scenes constructed to heighten suspense.

A strong positive of the 1969 movie is that it presents the precipitating situation and the critical action that generates the plot, which helps us to understand the characters better than in the 2010 movie where this is only referred to.  On the other hand, by giving plenty of space to the early courtroom scene of Cogburn toying with the lawyer, the story’s important theme of anarchy in the old West versus the enroachments of law and order is more fully developed in 2910, which gives the later movie more depth.

Starting earlier in the plot, the 1969 movie also ends earlier, and upbeat, pretty much “happily every after”.  The 2010 film, following the novel, let’s you see how things wind up years later down the line.  Maddie, now a business woman, is strong as ever but, poignantly, just misses her last chance to re-encounter Cogburn.  He, the old bounty hunter, had wound down to a Wild West sideshow, resolving that essential theme.  The lower arm Maddie lost from the snake bite has become part of her silhouette.  Not a “happily ever after” ending here, but not exactly a bitter one either: it carries a strong sense of truth.

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