True Grit (2010) was always going to get good reviews with such prestige at both ends of the camera, although despite the timing it doesn’t seem like a film with any major awards ambition. Unlike the strategically kooky Oscar-seeking missile deployed recently by Aronovsky and Hershlag, this is a work of genuine creative vision which deserves its hype. What’s interesting is that even the positive reviews are chiefly united by a sense of surprise, even confusion, that the Coen brothers’ latest follows the Western’s tracks so closely. It has been called “the first straight genre exercise in their career”, “probably the least ironic picture in the Coen Brothers’ worthy canon”, and even “just a couple bloody gunfights removed from an old-fashioned Disney yarn”. Ethan Coen himself has claimed that it was partly conceived and could be viewed as a Christmas movie (hopefully TV schedulers will take him at his word come December).
If the definition of “A Coen Brothers’ movie” is that it be relentlessly sardonic, and dementedly hostile towards genre convention, the consensus seems to be that this is the least “Coen Brothers” the Coen brothers have ever been. Despite the praise there seems to be a sense in some quarters that, in making a film people can easily understand, the filmmakers have failed to fulfil their duty to be as difficult and inscrutable as possible. The St. Petersburg Times‘ reviewer sums up this sense of betrayal, pointedly judging that “True Grit is a very good movie that might be more embraceable if we didn’t know who was pulling the trigger”.
This all raises the question of what exactly we should have been expecting from “A Coen Brothers Western”? The answer is easy because they already made one called No Country for Old Men (2007), which followed Cormac McCarthy’s novel in ruthlessly analysing and dismantling the core mechanics of America’s favourite myth. The film can’t fail to lull a first-time viewer into a false sense of security, particularly if they are American, by invoking that most familiar and predictable screen formula: the rolling deserts of Texas, a merciless killer on the loose and a stoic yet compassionate hero wearing a wide-brimmed hat and an impressive moustache. Predictably, however, things don’t pan out as we might expect.
The killer is never brought to justice, nor are his motives or capabilities ever fully revealed; our hero, despite owning several guns, is unable to escape an abrupt off-screen demise which denies us even the closure of a tragic final showdown. The film rolls gradually to a stop as the aging Sheriff Bell, having missed his prey by inches, retires “overmatched” to a restless life spent regretting his failure and dreaming of a simpler time, which an elder ex-lawman assures him never truly existed outside fantasy. The film, as heartless as it is brilliant, steeps itself in the imagery of Old West folklore but confronts head-on its ideals of masculine individualism and vigilante justice. Here the Western is systematically stripped of its sentimentality and dignity, without which it ceases to exist in any recognisable form.
The early scenes of True Grit certainly seem to announce a similar exercise in genre dissection, chiefly through Jeff Bridges’ shambolic, untrustworthy and occasionally incomprehensible take on the frontier hero. First appearing through the door of an outhouse taking a lengthy shit, marshal Reuben Cogburn is formally introduced in a lengthy courtroom scene during which he is cross-examined by a hostile defence lawyer. The strict ‘either/or’ legal discourse efficiently sets up the film’s central question: is the marshal a righteous lawman, tough-but-fair as adversity demands, or a vicious drunkard who exploits his position of power to settle personal grudges? This interrogative atmosphere pervades the following film, which invites its audience to act as jurors at the trial of Cogburn and, implicitly, the genre he represents.
Like Mattie Ross, a young girl looking for the villain who murdered her father, we spend most of the time watching Rooster and willing him to be the man she needs. 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld is of course the movie’s only likely contender for an Academy Award and should be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress, despite not technically qualifying for the category. The Coens’ chief ‘correction’ with regard to Charles Portis’ 1968 novel was filtering the entire film through her perspective. Even Carter Burwell’s restrained soundtrack is formed entirely of adapted gospel hymns, as if limited to the range of music a young Presbyterian girl would have been exposed to at the time.
Cogburn’s personal history grows darker and more disreputable the more is revealed to us. It emerges that while both he and the Ranger LaBoeuf fought for the Confederacy during the recent Civil War (1861-1865) Cogburn was no true soldier but part of a guerrilla army led by William Quantrill – appointed “Captain” temporarily under a subsequently repealed wartime act. Quantrill led an infamous attack on the pro-Union town of Lawrence, Kansas, in which many civilians were massacred and, whether or not he attended the slaughter, Rooster still regards his wartime service with pride.
The moral ambivalence of Cogburn is made the central theme of the film by the Coens, through several inserted or tweaked scenes. Of note is LaBoeuf’s repeated insistence that Cogburn must have shot him during the dugout ‘turkey shoot’, either accidentally or as an attempted murder, a charge never decisively answered. Likewise the addition of LaBoeuf’s tongue injury enables the briefest but most distressing of the film’s few violent scenes as Rooster begins to draw the thing from his mouth, relenting just a bit too late for comfort. It’s a strange and ugly little moment, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether Cogburn’s actions exhibit well-meaning carelessness, an attempt at cruel humour, or genuine malice.
Even his competence with a firearm, the fundamental quality of any Western hero, is thrown into questioned by a drunken display of gunmanship late in the film. In a strangely symmetrical scene the Marshal fires four times at a bottle, hitting it just once, then throws hunks of cornbread into the air four times and decisively hits only one. It may be one of the film’s most memorable shots, Cogburn’s greatcoat billowing in the wind as he tosses and draws in one smooth movement, but misses are still in the majority and we cut away from a soused old man firing hopelessly at nothing. Was that hit just a fluke, or something more? Is Cogburn a crack-shot hero down on his luck, or a drunken fraud pressing it too far?
The Coens break proudly from their own tradition is the film’s climax, in which ambiguity has no place. It brings with it a flurry of unlikely victories which fulfil a personal promise for each of the central characters: Cogburn’s tall tale about facing down a posse by himself, told earlier to a disbelieving Mattie, is recreated in style; LaBoeuf the puffed-up “rodeo clown”, who earlier lamented missing his prey over a great distance of 300 metres, makes a shot which Mattie excitedly hails as closer to 400; immediately afterward the Coens conspire to let her fulfil her own ideal revenge fantasy by executing her father’s killer single-handed (in the novel one of the lawmen finishes the job for her).
Coming after the grim tension that fills much of the rest of the film, these ecstatic scenes feel less like the finale of a traditional Western than that of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), in which the quixotic old adventurer and his cohorts somehow conspire to bring about an impossible fairytale ending in spite of everything. The film’s grim epilogue, which presses home the high price paid for this triumph, dampens but cannot diminish its impression on the memory. Cogburn’s final charge lasts all of thirty seconds, but dispels all our doubts as to his character. Over the redemptive bloodshed Carter Burwell’s score cuts loose for the first and only time into outright heroic bombast, blasting brass restoring to the genre for just a moment every shred of its former glory.
Which ultimately seems like the film’s true purpose. Self-reference in the Western is nothing new, the genre having turned to exploring its own nature (and, specifically, mourning its own demise) since at least the days of Sam Peckinpah. True Grit is significant mainly as a milestone in the Coens’ career: a rare and beautiful concession to sincerity. Having taken a genre to pieces the Coens have tried to put it back together again, not just to show that they could but out of what seems to be genuine affection. At the very least they have given the Western what would serve as a decent and dignified burial – if only the thing would stay dead.