|Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit.|
Out to pasture/yes
By John Esther
If you like old fashioned, orderly, ontological narratives punch drunk full of sympathetic brutes and iced with eth(n)ical insensitivity, your holiday movie gift arrives with co-writers/editors/directors/producers and brothers Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit. The latest film adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, True Grit, is every bit as intellectually demanding and politically reactionary as director Henry Hathaway's 1969 version starring John Wayne in his only Oscar-winning role.
Set somewhere in the Oklahoma Territory post-Civil War, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is determined to get justice for her prosperous pa after a working man who is going by the name of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) robs and kills daddy in cold blood. As every bit smart, tough and misguided as the mythological adolescent male tough guy -- but still a girl who needs male help (Mattie is no Malpaso Man) -- Mattie uses her brains and bucks to recruit Rueben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). An ornery U.S. Marshall known for killing first and asking questions, then drinking later and before, it is going to take all of Mattie's moxie and money to persuade the "true grit" law enforcement officer to take the job.
Fixed in the mix is le beefy Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also after Tom Chaney. Ever since the desperado killed a U.S. Senator in Texas three years ago, LaBoeuf has been on the trail. Au Juyceian.
Moving beyond the pretense of western civilization into the back country, the three of them intertwine as the plot twists and turns until True Grit walks its predictable path without any attempts at deconstructing western myths, intriguing innovation or other worthwhile purpose. At its basic, True Grit is hardly more than a story about retribution from an adolescent viewpoint.
Since the film begins with 40-year-old Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel) telling her story, 14-year-old Mattie's survival throughout the narrative is never in question regardless of how many rough men she done gets herself mixed up wit'. Come hell and hi, high, hype hi, "what her?" slaughter, the filmmakers make it clear from the onset Mattie's destiny does not conclude at an early death.
Rooster's success is not in doubt, either. Like any one of countless traditional movie lawmen who operates by his own sets of rules, Rooster has killed so many men with immunity he cannot even keep track. He is just a good old boy who kills the bad guys, and if he makes a mistake every so now and then, True Grit repeatedly asserts we are suppose to forgive the loveable, filthy, old coot because things like habeas corpus and Magna Carta are just plain annoying (right, PATRIOTs). In fact, Mattie had the option of picking another man to track and capture her father's alleged killer, but that lawman values due process of law so forget him. The relatively clean, young lady is hungry for some hanging.
While on the subject of hanging, True Grit is filled with Freudian metaphors of adolescent angst toward sex. Mattie's recollections of her manhunt involves lots of hangings, dismembered fingers, a traumatic encounter with snakes – as a result of removing the clothes of a dead man, "Rooster," a spanking by "The Beef," an amputation as result of shooting a big gun -- which knocks her back down a big hole, stabbings, bullet holes, the metanarrative with the her horse (D.H. Lawrence) and all those guns that keep appearing then disappearing then reappearing again. Although rudimentary, viewing True Grit as a psychological coming-of-age story makes it more entertaining.
On another hand, in accordance with the film's dominat(e)-ion narrative, as far as non-whites go, they are essentially non-existent in a film whose heroes, in addition to everything else backwards in the film, fought on the Confederate side. There are two African Americans, both there to serve their white masters. While their general discard warrants little attention, the film's treatment of Native Americans is deplorable. Essentially there are three scenes with Native Americans, each time they are used as a comical ploy -- to considerable and uneasy effect at the screening I attended. The Condemned Indian (Jonathan Joss) is silenced and executed and the audience laughed. The second involves Indian Youth (Brandon Sanderson and Ruben Nakai Campana) being literally kicked around by Rooster and the audience laughed. The third... It seems it is Ok to wash away the Trail of Tears with laughter.
Conversely, the much more positive area of True Grit, there is plenty of that crisp dialogue -- here greatly aided by the film's rather faithful adaptation of the novel (so I am reliably informed) -- we can almost always expect from a Coen Bros. film. In particular, LaBoeuf, who is a more interesting, amiable and original character than Rooster, offers a humorous, often witty, proud way of looking at life as a Texas Ranger.
As far as acting, the accolades are slow in pouring for Bridges, Steinfeld and company. They were ignored at Golden Globes and only garnered two at the recent SAG nominations, including an absurd Best Supporting Actress nomination for Steinfeld whose character is present in well over 80 percent of the film. Last year's Oscar winner for Crazy Heart, Bridges performance as Rooster illustrates what a political charade it was when Wayne won Best Actor (who laughably beat out Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman for their performances in Midnight Cowboy). Steinfeld is definitely headed for some major roles after her feature film debut. Not only does she show dramatic range, Steinfeld can be funny. In a scene where Mattie haggles over horses, Steinfeld performs with an impressive amount of confidence and comic timing. Thanks to Steinfeld, Mattie is probably the funniest female character in the Coen Bros. oeuvre since Jennifer Jason Leigh's Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).
No doubt many will favorably compare True Grit to the vastly overrated No Country for Old Men (2007) and rightfully so. They both share beautiful landscape cinematography by Richard Deakins (who also did this year's superior film, The Company Men), nostalgia for a mythical American past, violence, clever characters, some hilarious dialogue and a political ideology very much right of center. Add the female protagonist aspect and I see no reason why someone like Sarah Palin would not love this film.