Friday Recommends, movies

Friday Recommends: True Grit

“I ain’t dead yet, you bushwhacker.”


As a starting point, True Grit shares much in common with Winter’s Bone, another film about a young woman of singular purpose, driven to extraordinary lengths by the actions (or inactions) of her now absent father. In the case of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, her father, presumably dead, has endangered the family’s home to legal foreclosure unless Ree tracks him down. Possessed with a fiercely maternal instinct, Ree plunges deep into the backwoods thicket of family secrets, all of which are touched in one way or another by the meth trade.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the indomitable 14-year-old force of nature who blazes straight through the heart of this movie, is also haunted by her absent father. In Mattie’s case, though, there is no ambiguity about whether he is still among the living — he was killed by the drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie then takes it upon herself to personally avenge her father’s death. She has the wit, smarts and resources — the grit — to know that she needs help navigating the wilds of Choctaw territory into which Chaney has fled with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang. She enlists the help of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges as a grunting drunk with an itchy trigger finger and a prickly intelligence. (The Coen brothers, in a nice touch, put Cogburn’s patch on the opposite eye as John Wayne’s in the 1969 original. Both versions are based on the book by Charles Portis.)

What the Coen brothers bring to their remake is a measured faithfulness to the book’s formal, courtly dialect (“His depradations are over,” Mattie says of a dead man), all delivered straight-faced and in sharp contrast to the disorderly violence that erupts whenever the characters stop talking. The one having the most fun with the language is a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, played by Matt Damon as a preening straight arrow unaware that he’s not the character nicknamed “Rooster.” His verbal sparring, first with Mattie, then on the trail with Cogburn, is among the movie’s finest comic moments. The best, though, are the early scenes between Mattie and Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), negotiating over the return of some horses. “Wait, are we trading again?” Stonehill asks with alarm when he realizes Mattie has led him into another trap.

It’s striking to watch a Coen brothers film without irony. There is genuine, heartfelt emotion in the bonds Mattie forms with her two men, and in the harrowing climax when Cogburn must ride Mattie to safety underneath the cold, blue stars. (Dana Stevens at Slate confesses that this sequence marked “the first time I’ve ever shed tears in a Coen brothers movie.” Speaking of those cold, blue stars, the cinematographer Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, does gorgeous work as usual.) Ann Hornaday noted in her review for the Washington Post that Mattie bears a certain resemblance to another iconic Coen brothers female lead — Marge Gunderson of Fargo, the dogged, relentless police officer who provided the moral and ethical compass lacking in the world around her. Like Fargo, True Grit deserves to be considered one of the Coens’ finest. When Iris DeMent breaks into “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as the credits roll, you may be surprised at the chord the Coens touched in you, and in themselves.


15 thoughts on “Friday Recommends: True Grit

  1. Excellent review – it makes me want to see it again! One correction to make – Rooster Cogburn is played by Jeff Bridges, not Jeff Daniels.

  2. Good review. We thought Jeff Bridges was great. One of the things we appreciated most about this is the conciseness. It may sound stupid, but Camille and I had a long talk afterward about how so many movies over the past few years seem to just go on and on with as much as a half hour-forty five minutes that add nothing to the picture as a whole. We liked it that the Coens: 1. Kept this true to the book and (as a result) 2. Kept it on track and to the point. They seem to recognize that a tight film, without a bunch of sculch, will in the end be a better product than the rambling incoherentness you see often these days.

  3. Mike, you have added a new word to our vocabulary: sculch. Thank you.

    Erin may disagree with me on this, but the extra half hour/forty-five minute padding was exactly what I didn’t like about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which we saw together yesterday. (I saw True Grit with the JB crew Thursday night.) What kid should be expected to sit through 150 minutes … of part one, no less? Get in, find the Horcruxes, kill Voldemort, get out. It’s that simple.

    What Erin will agree with me on is that brevity is one of the main things we love about our favorite popcorn movie: Red Eye. 85 minutes. We’ve watched it probably two dozen times. Great flick.

  4. I also really liked this film, but I don’t know that I would wholly agree that is was ‘without irony.’ Irony may be the wrong word, but part of the Coen Bros genius is to reassemble genres with a comic touch while managing to remain a total reverence for the genre at hand (think Miller’s Crossing more than Big Lebowski). I think what they did her was undercut a lot of the masculine bravado or machismo from all the male characters and shift this movie almost totally to Mattie from Rooster.

    I’ve not read the book or seen the other version, but I would imagine even though Mattie is the narrator, Rooster is our focus ( like the Ishmael/Ahab thing you may be familiar with). Both ‘Le Beef’ , and yes, even fat old Rooster, come off as bumpkins at times, and when we finally meet the man who killed Mattie’s father, Josh Brolin plays him like a half-wit. I was honestly let down. This is who we have been hunting down? Is this the futility of revenge? This girl could kill this guy with her eyes, and almost does. Two of the most resonant and memorable scenes for me in the film – and I think this was very intentional on the Coens’ part, esp. since they did do two secnes – were Mattie’s ‘haggling’ with the town horse trader. She was simply hypnotic and overwhelming. She manipulates – whether through money or her rhetoric – the male ‘heroes’ to do what she wants, to get what she wants.

    There is an obvious symbolism and foreshadowing in the film between all the ropes – the ones that hang the men in the opening, the ones that Rooster and then Mattie coil about their beds, the one that lassos Le Beouf to the ground – and their eventual vitalization as the snakes. Can we say the same of Mattie’s braids?

  5. Good points. Although, I think we all ignore the very strong moments of drawing us back to the fact that she’s still just a 14 year old girl- the cave/snake scene being the more obvious of them. The scene in the shed with the two bandits was a powerful illustration that this was a little over Mattie’s head. It was definitely classic Coen as well, in that, it’s a not unrealistic depiction of violence that escalates quickly and without warning (though in hindsight should’ve seen it coming) and leaves the viewer (and Mattie I might add) with a “WTF just happened ?” expression of shock/revulsion/fear.

    1. I don’t disagree totally Mike, but I also still think she was given – or perhaps the young actress even took – a bigger bite out of this narrative than the previous versions.

      Also, along with the starlit snowsoaked horse ride, the cabin violence scene was one of Deakins’ cinematic triumphs. I loved the warm light of that one candle capturing the violent act and its dark red stain. It looked like a Bosch painting.

      Also, you added new word to my vocabulary: WTF. Gonna use it in emails tomorrow during my first day back at work! Thanks.

  6. Since we’re all dropping SAT words here, let me elucidate my claim that this film was “without irony”:

    Critics who dislike Coen brothers movies usually talk about their contempt for the audience and/or their characters. In that favorable review I linked to above, Ann Hornaday also says, “‘True Grit’ evinces none of the snarky ironic distance that can sometimes mark and mar a Coen brothers production. Here, the film’s considerable humor comes not from the filmmakers’ own superior remove but from the characters themselves.” David Denby, who liked “True Grit,” previously said of the Coens that their “humor is distant, dry, and shrivelling.” (This from a review of “A Serious Man,” which Denby declared “intolerable.”) There is no similar ironic detachment from their characters — or their audience — in “True Grit,” though there are certainly ironies as you, Mr. Hoobler, note.

    I have to agree with Mike that while Mattie dominates the movie, I thought the Coens put her in her place, so to speak, once we enter Choctaw country. First in the cabin, then when Rooster quits her and LaBouef leaves, and finally when Rooster rescues her in the cave. She’s a headstrong fourteen-year-old — I’d hate to horse trade with her — but she’s still fourteen. Yes, she’s capable of pulling the trigger to wound her father’s killer. But it’s LaBouef who kills him for good, and Rooster who saves her from the snakes.

    I have to admit I caught none of the rope symbolism. Thanks for pointing that out.

    I was also really creeped out during the cave scene. I hate snakes more than Indiana Jones does.

  7. Did you folks really like the look of the starlit horseride at the end? I thought it looked fake, like 1960’s “we’re driving in a car, although I’m not watching the road and never turning the steering wheel” fake. Lost me completely at that point. Also, the score was terribly out of place. Didn’t seem to fit the tone of the film, too distracting. In the end, I was left with the thought that this would be my Aunt Linda’s new favorite Matt Damon movie. B-, at best. (Now, if Jeff Daniels had been in it, that’s a guaranteed B+!)

  8. I had the same initial reaction as you did to the horse-ride-that-actually-looks-like-we’re-driving-in-a-car-although-I’m-not-watching-the-road-and-never-turning-the-steering-wheel … until the shot where they pan back and you see Rooster, Mattie and the horse under the stars. And that shot was so good for me, that I forgot/forgave the aforementioned weird effects leading up to it. It had a fever dream quality to me.

    Expectations are everything with movies, and I went into this one with very low ones. I misread the early buzz and thought this was going to be a PG-13 version of No Country For Old Men. I was pleasantly surprised.

    Also, Dave Powell may or may not have tried to put the moves on me.

    If Jeff Goldblum had been in it — solid A. A+ if dinosaurs had shown up!

  9. That was very much my problem — I expected it to be the best movie of the year, and it just felt too underwhelming. Don’t you get me all wrongs, I liked it, but I can understand why it has such a mass appeal. Now EXCUSE me while I polish my monocle. *scuttlebutt, scuttlebutt, rabble, rabble, scoff, scoff*

  10. I maintain that in some ways it was a movie that was made to underwhelm, especially those seeking heroic moments or closure; it seemed to offer little of either. In this way I agree with Stanley Fish.

    But what I cannot see is why he thinks this is a ‘religious’ movie, even given his very Old Testament, if not Miltonic, definition of religion.

    Matthew, what was your Aunt Linda’s old favorite Matt Damon movie?
    Happy Birthday by the way. But please extend Birthday greetings to your friend Ken Fletcher as well. I hear his Facebook wall runneth dry with birthday tidings.

  11. Believe it or not, Aunt Linda is a HUGE fan of Stuck on You. Conjoined Twins are kind of her thing.

    Ken’s wall will never run dry. He’s King Shit of Facebook Mountain. I am but a mere grunt in his internet army.

  12. Conjoined Twins are everyone’s kind of thing. I hope you received the Female Conjoined Twins Singing Telegram I got you for your birthday. I had to guess at the address, so I hope they found the right building.

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