True Grit: Gritty Truth and Great Storytelling
True Grit deserves to be right up there with Huckleberry Finn as an American classic. Charles Portis’ novel is a gripping, gritty read, and while the 1969 film starring John Wayne was good, the 2010 Coen brothers’ re-make is better. More faithful to Mr. Portis’ novel, the Coen brothers also capture the wide vistas of the American West, putting them in the great tradition of director John Ford, who used the wide and wild spaces of the frontier as a kind of metaphor for the American spirit.
Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn is perfect in my opinion. Bridges’ ‘cool’ persona has roughened with age, and he is now the ideal actor to communicate the tough killer whose heart is won over by a fourteen-year-old girl who is every bit as tough as he is. Countering the crummy curmudgeon, Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is a delightfully tough tomboy—as sassy and sullen as one of Flannery O’Conner’s ornery little girls.
The movie is populated with crazy criminals, murderous mountain men, renegade rustlers, and an unforgiving winter landscape. In this movie, bleak is beautiful, and the bleak interior landscapes of the human heart mirror the bleak and wild settings pictured in the film.
The interplay of the two main characters drives the story forward more than the main plot of Mattie’s quest for justice. In most of the movie fourteen-year-old Mattie has more gumption and guts than the grizzled old deputy Cogburn. When she puts on her father’s oversized hat, and tucks a pistol into her belt, you know she means business. Meanwhile, Bridges’ Rooster is a played-out, old drunk—a sharpshooter whose aim is off—a bounty hunter on his last crusade. We learn that he has a broken marriage behind him and kids who disappeared along with his wife. Suddenly the story has a hidden heart. The tough little sister who lost her dad is allied with the tough, old man who has lost his kids. I get it. Underneath the gunslinging, guts, and grit, this is a father-daughter buddy movie.
For those who like their movies to have meaning, the Coen brothers eschew preachy morality and leave you with ordinary people facing tough decisions in a wicked world that demands not only good ideas, but good decisions and good actions. In addition, as in most of their films, the movie is laced with startling visual images, settings, and backgrounds that evoke a strangeness which points beyond the ordinary to some unseen, unspoken world beyond.
In True Grit there are fires and darkness, cliffs and caves, serpents and saviors. Like the world in which we live, the world of the Coen brothers reeks with symbols that are never specified and hints that are never spoken. The players enact their roles within a vivid realm that is far greater than they can see, and which thus gives each of their words and actions a greater meaning.
Mattie says she is seeking justice. She wants her father’s killer to be brought in to stand trial and to be hanged. However, when it comes to the crunch, she’s prepared to pull the trigger herself, so was it revenge or justice she wanted? The kick from the rifle after she kills the murderer propels her down into a cavern where she becomes entangled in roots. The skeleton of a previous unfortunate haunts the place, and that abdomen of the skeleton contains a nest of rattlesnakes, and the child is bitten and doomed.
What is that about? The innocent little girl is soiled by violence and revenge? The ancient serpent bites and spreads the venom that can kill? Are we pressing it too far to see that the innocent Eve, soiled by sin, now needs to be rescued— and to see that in the final scene in which Rooster rides to save her life and sacrifices all, she finds in the father a savior? In her losing an arm to the serpent’s poison, do we see the permanent disfigurement and distortion that accompanies our concupiscence and our crimes?
Maybe there’s more. Rooster is a one-eyed man, and in the classics, the blind old man is also the seer Tiresias. Beneath the bottle, the bravado and the bluff exterior Rooster Cogburn is a man of integrity. He speaks the truth, spots lies and hypocrisy, and takes aim. There is more to him than meets the eye, and perhaps that is why he only has one eye… to aim better.
Stephen Spielberg is the executive producer of the movie and in a question-and-answer session after the screening of Saving Private Ryan he tantalized, “I like to hear what cool stuff other people see in my movies that I never knew was there.” This is one of the mysteries of literature, art and life—that we see patterns of meaning that are locked into the art form, and that they are all the more powerful for their being subconscious.
The Coen brothers would no doubt agree. They understand more than most filmmakers the extreme subtlety of their art. They incarnate the story in the visual images and characters and allow the ambiguity and mystery of life to radiate through the film without being so crude as to be explicit. They accomplish this not only with their cinematic skill, but also through their creation of character.
Their heroes are often wacky anti-heroes. In a true American style, they like the outrageous outcast, the eccentric expert, the lonely genius, the romantic fool, or the courageous clown. They uphold the common man against smooth establishment hypocrisy, the ordinary man in the face of outlandish wickedness. As such, they inspire and encourage every outsider who longs for greatness, every outcast who has a heart of genius, and every romantic fool who loves beauty, truth, and goodness for their own sake.
This article first appeared in the Imaginative Conservative and is republished with permission.