True Grit (2010)
John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, but he had that American-eagle presence that stood him in good stead until the ’60s, when the eagle’s feathers began to molt. In 1969, with America’s indignity approaching its peak, Wayne made True Grit and played a fat, one-eyed drunk who could still get it together to be noble. The denuded eagle had been restored, at least temporarily. Cut to 2010: the eagle has not soared for quite some time, and politicians on both sides are plucking its feathers one by one. The time may indeed be right for another True Grit, another fat one-eyed drunk showing us that redemption is hard but not impossible. And this time, there’s a real actor involved.
Jeff Bridges steps into the muddy boots of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (sharp newcomer Hailie Steinfeld) to chase down the no-account thief who killed her father. Cogburn normally can’t be bothered to make his speech intelligible — most of it is disgruntled mumbling — but Bridges, a precise actor even when playing layabouts like Cogburn or the Dude, lets us hear the sentences that matter. Cogburn drinks all day and drags himself painfully out of sleep in the morning, but he snaps into cold proficiency when he has to.
True Grit has been adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen to hew closer to the tone of Charles Portis’ well-loved novel, which is told from the viewpoint of Mattie Ross. The baroquely formal language has been preserved, as has the rather eligiac epilogue: this time it’s Mattie who rides off into the sunset, not Cogburn. The obvious comparison is to the Coens’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (that film’s desperate protagonist, Josh Brolin, here gets to play a slyly tongue-in-cheek Anton Chigurh figure), but I think it would make a better double feature with the Coens’ Fargo. In both, a plain-spoken female, innocent of sin but unafraid in the face of evil, pursues her quarry across grim expanses of snow. They’re both essentially comedies of persistence, weighed to the earth a little by the heaviness of violence.
The original True Grit got an M rating in 1969 (the equivalent of today’s PG-13), and the new version pushes the PG-13 envelope with chopped-off fingers, an assailant shot off his horse and pitching bloodily head-first into a big rock, and a nicely tense sequence involving a pit full of rattlesnakes. Still, the Coens have aimed for a holiday-season entertainment here, wrought with their usual fastidious style. (If cinematographer Roger Deakins, heretofore stupidly overlooked by the Academy for past gorgeous work, doesn’t win the Oscar next February for his work here, I’m sure I won’t be alone in throwing something at the TV.)
Why did the typically sardonic Coens want to make this film? A glance at the Portis novel yields a simple answer: Why wouldn’t they? It offers terrific set pieces, a great ear for dialogue, and an outsize hero, a sodden eagle burping on his horse and failing to shoot cornbread in air but firing true when it counts. It’s clear from such farces as Burn After Reading that the Coens don’t really believe in American exceptionalism. But perhaps they would like to. In the wide panoramic compositions of the filmmaking, the eagle soars again.