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Film review: The Coen brothers take on True Grit

Seen any good novel-based movies lately? Bookclub-in-a-Box’s Marilyn Herbert has, and as promised, here are her thoughts on the latest Coen brothers release, True Grit.

In the 2010 adaptation of True Grit, the Coen brothers return to the original story by Charles Portis, using his plot, character structure, and much of the original dialogue. They pass over the John Wayne remakes of the book and come at it with fresh eyes.

True Grit is a fabulous film to be enjoyed on a number of levels: characterization, depiction of social and moral values, raw physical action, humour, cinematography, and music. The Coen brothers make use of the genre’s mythology, that the Wild West will be tamed by the brave men and women who venture westward across the vast landscape in search of honesty, morality, and justice.

The story follows 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld), whose father has been senselessly murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a no-account farmhand. Mattie is smart, brave, and practical, and sets out to hire Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a rough-and-tumble U.S. marshall, to track Chaney down and bring him to justice.

Mattie has heard that Cogburn has “true grit,” something she admires because, as viewers readily see, she has much grit herself. The alcoholic and burnt out Cogburn reluctantly agrees, perhaps because he sees something of his past self in Mattie. Their business arrangement is compromised by a third party — a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) — who also wants Chaney for a crime he committed in Texas. While Mattie wants simple justice for her father, the two men want recognition and the cash reward. Things get competitive and dangerous as they set out to capture Chaney and return him to Fort Smith for hanging.

As film genres go, the Coen brothers have revived one of America’s most enduring classics: the Western. The early Westerns were set in the 19th century at a time when America was rebuilding itself after the devastating influence of the Civil War and the history of slavery. At the time, the world was facing great change in terms of travel, communication, social and technological change. Our 21st century world is facing similar challenges, and maybe that’s the filmmakers’ fascination with the genre of the old Wild West.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.

For those unfamiliar with the Charles Portis novel, humour is a large part of his work. He takes the mythology of the Western genre and reflects it back on itself. For example, there are the gunslingers — one failed U.S. marshall and one lone Texas Ranger — who reflect the two arms of law enforcement in the U.S. (federal vs. state) during the mid- to late 1800s. Police agencies have always been competitive and this plays into the hands of the genre’s idea of an ongoing feud. But with Mattie as their go-between, they end up working together, more or less, on her behalf as they chase Chaney into Indian territory.

A Western classic traditionally offers the male lead the chance to be a hero by rescuing a vulnerable woman and restoring her honour, often at great sacrifice to himself. Because True Grit’s Mattie is only 14, the two older men would be expected to protect and guide her — but Mattie’s own unwavering bravery does much to help them develop emotionally and socially. (Another interesting note on gender: the author Charles Portis bears his mother’s surname [Alice Waddell Portis], not his father’s [Samuel Palmer]). Both Portis and the Coens have made Mattie the hero of their story.

While Western dramas traditionally look for redemption, that, as Mattie tells us, is God’s domain. She and her male counterparts are God’s instruments on earth. Mattie believes that God’s judgment, not man’s, is the final one. She comes to recognize both Cogburn and La Boeuf as decent, moral human beings, despite their respective records of murder. This is merely a fact of the times.

True Grit’s panorama shows a small man, a child, and a horse pitted against a vast universe. What are their chances of survival? This film, like the traditional genre of the Western, is about overcoming the odds. To do so requires enormous stores of courage and determination, something that is demonstrated by each of the three main characters as they get to know each other.

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