The Coen Brothers prove their ‘True Grit’

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Coen brothers do not remember enough of the original version of True Grit to remake the film, given the fact that they have not seen it since they were young boys.  No, what they truly meant to remake was the 1968 novel of the same name, by Charles Portis.

Not influenced by John Wayne’s portrayal of Marshall Rooster Cogburn, the Coens were rather taken by the bold characters, morality tale and ominous tone of the 19th century west represented in the novel.

The story follows the young and determined Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, on her journey to avenge her father’s murder.  In the film’s beginning, the 14-year-old Mattie travels to handle the unfinished business of her father.  Displaying her dauntlessness, she spends a night in a funeral parlor, and successfully bargains her way to a horse and $300 from a horse trader trying to cheat her. Through her persistence, Mattie prods Rooster Cogburn, a disheveled, hard-nosed drunk, and the grittiest Marshall in town, to aid her in capturing the outlaw Tom Chaney by venturing into Indian territory.

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges

Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, is also tracking Chaney, but for the $1,000 bounty accrued for the killing of a Senator and his dog.  The stiff, long-winded and humorless LaBoeuf embarks with the one-eyed, facetious Cogburn, as they agree to split the reward.  However, this was not part of the agreement for Mattie, who hired Cogburn to have Chaney hang for murdering her father, not shooting a Senator’s dog.  She is intent on seeing the job done, setting the three on a course that will test their true resolve.

It is exceptional to see a western that isn’t romanticized to its core.  There is nothing appealing about living in essentially 1870s western anarchy, where life expectancy is short in a kill or be killed society (and the pragmatic Marshall Cogburn chooses the former) .  But the Coens’ darkness is always paired with light.  A dying cowboy pleads to be buried.  Later, after neglecting the cowboy’s wish, Rooster explains, “Ground’s too hard. Them men wanted a decent burial, they should have got themselves killed in summer” (it is in the dead of winter after all).

The Coen brothers have the ability not to simply parody a genre, but recreate it.  Whether it’s a prohibition Irish gangster film, a 1960s suburb version of Job, or homage to the fast-talking newspapermen dramas of the 1930s, the trace of the Coens is undeniable, but also not diverting.

One of the ways the filmmakers achieve a convincing portrayal of this time period is simply by staying true to the novel.  Most of

One of the many eccentric characters that embody a Coen brothers film, in their 2010 release "True Grit."

the dialogue was taken directly from the book, which was written in the vernacular of the old west.  In most period pieces the language is indistinguishable from any other film in which the speech sounds like a Hollywood script.  The language cements an essence of other worldliness. Joel Coen said, “It was a frequent occurrence on the set that an actor would inadvertently use a contraction, and we would ask them not to…  And the actors welcomed that to be faithful to the book.”

After months of searching for the right girl to cast, the Coens were lucky to find Steinfeld, who steals the movie with a compelling performance.  Herself only just turning 14 in December, she exhibits poise and intelligence in mastering the language of the film (a main inhibitor of casting the part), and heart of the role.  She embodies wisdom beyond her years in her spirit that makes her an equal match for anyone, and at the same time a naivete in comparing the capturing of a murderous fugitive to a coon hunt.

And although the part of Rooster was written only from the novel, and not with any particular actor in mind, Jeff Bridges was the obvious choice on what the Coens admit was a short list.  The consistency and depth of the role is masterful, engulfing the gruff, flawed and in turn very human character.  It is only Bridges who can be pictured half drunk and snoring in his underwear, and still have the audience find him lovable.  No role is wasted, and all the actors appear unrecognizable in what the viewer finds himself absorbed in for the film’s duration.

The Coens may have been in awe upon viewing True Grit in 1969.  But since, they have only watched the trailer.  The Coen brothers simply like to tell good stories, stories that show the real grit of humanity, and as long as they do, they will always have an audience.

By: Liz Harrington


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