Joel & Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” (2010) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“When Chaney is taken, he’s coming back to Fort Smith to hang. I’m not having him go to Texas to hang for shooting some senator.
-“It is not important where he hangs, is it?”
“It is to me. Is it to you?”
-“It means a great deal of money to me. It’s been many months’ work.”
“I’m sorry that you are paid piecework and not on wages, and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit.”

In our recent podcast review of Kelly Reichardt‘s 2020 film First Cow, I reductively summarized the canon of the American Western, by praising that film’s setting and narrative because, “It’s not California, it’s mostly not about men with guns, and it’s not all taking place in one 30-year period following the California Gold Rush”. In retrospect, I must admit that I was knowingly doing that canon a disservice, because- however much I scoff at American mythmaking, which began in the rhetorical drive toward reinvention and conquest that we called manifest destiny, and continued past the violence and broken treaties toward a full century of colonialist nostalgia – it is a genre that I’ve personally enjoyed for most of my life, and which spans a great many times and places. This enjoyment has persisted even as I’ve had those myths peeled away and deconstructed one by one, a process of reexamination that began – in both academia and popular culture – well before I was born. One of my favorite Westerns from my lifetime, the 1993 George P. Cosmatos film Tombstone (which takes place in 1880s Arizona) was as much about providing a nostalgic filter for modern-day gang violence (in the form of an organized gang of “cowboys” identified by their characteristic red sashes) as it was about reenacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral, or denying Val Kilmer a well-deserved Oscar. In addition to being a recent (27-year-old) example of a revisionist western that I enjoyed, it came to mind because one of its most memorable scenes, a late showdown in a knee-deep river, may have been loosely inspired by the mid-climactic confrontation between 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, which appears in both adapted versions of True Grit.

True Grit is an interesting case for a few reasons – for starters, it’s explicitly not about westward expansion, but rather about run-of-the-mill law and order in a place where it should rightfully exist as a measuring stick of civilization. The film takes place in and around rural Yell County, Arkansas, a state in the Deep South with a population of a little over 800,000 in 1880 when the film takes place (more than 200,000 more than present-day Wyoming). The film, adapted by the Coen Bros in 2010 from a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, was adapted previously into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby as 14-year-old rancher’s daughter Mattie Ross. When she was cast, Darby was a 22-year-old mother, styled with what would’ve been regarded at the time as a short-cropped boy’s haircut (similarly used for Mary Martin as the title character of the 1954-60 musical/telecast version of Peter Pan). The Coens took the novel step of casting a real teenager, Hailee Steinfeld, who was the product of a massive talent search and had only ever appeared in a handful of shorts before this film. And while it’s fair to say that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon embody their characters in similar ways to Wayne and Campbell in the ’69 film (Damon in particular seems to lift many of his mannerisms and accent straight from Campbell), Steinfeld is the reason why this film works so well, along with Portis, the late author of the novel. Because it wasn’t until this week, when I watched both versions of the film and perused a copy of the novel for the first time, that I realized just how little of the script and dialogue belongs to the Coens, with much of it lifted wholesale from the novel, and only the occasional little tweak or rearrangement or inner thought being spoken aloud that belongs to the Coens. Which is fine, honestly. True Grit is one of the Coens’ funniest films, but Ethan Coen was the first to admit in a 2010 interview that much of that humor came directly from the novel, and part of his desire to re-adapt the novel was to restore the humor that was lost in the ’69 version.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

The novel takes place from young Mattie’s perspective as she locates and hires the meanest US Marshal she can find, Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drunken scoundrel with a powder-marked face who murdered her father as he tried to stop him from attacking a table of cardplayers to whom he had lost money moments earlier. Mattie is both exceptionally capable and knowledgeable of both law and financial matters, details which are established in a handful of introductory scenes in the ’69 film, but which come essentially out of nowhere in the 2010. Steinfeld is not only completely in charge of these interactions, but threatens multiple people with the litigious retribution of her family’s lawyer, J. Noble Daggett, who is voiced in the film by J.K. Simmons, as the only indication that the girl’s threats to sue and assert her rights are anything but bluster. Although both films contain a line which perhaps helps to explain the girl’s claim of authority – she defends herself against abandonment to a “congress of louts” (a Coen Bros line) by identifying her name and hometown, and asserting, “My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.” It’s not the girl’s fault that she comes from a place of wealth and privilege any more than it is her fault that her father was murdered by a hired man. But it is a bit of a reminder that wherever law and order are lacking, only crimes against the wealthy will be properly met with justice. This also relies on a prior assumption that the institutions of justice will, if brought to bear on the situation, truly result in a just outcome.

And this is where True Grit (take your pick from the novel or either filmed version) really shines, allowing Mattie to constantly assert her piety, innocence, and clear-eyed sense of morality, while also prodding her naïveté and ending on a note that perhaps suggests that her vendetta was not so well-conceived. As I’ve come to expect from the Western genre, all of the principal characters in the film are white, and the film’s treatment of race is confined to a singular punchline during a triple-hanging scene in front of the Fort Smith courthouse in the film’s first act. This an interesting scene because it is an instance where the adaptations diverge quite sharply, with the ’69 version containing no dialogue from the condemned men, whereas the 2010 opens on one giving a lengthy speech, begging the crowd to learn from his mistakes and be kind to his family, and lamenting his lack of proper instruction as a child that led to him murdering a man “in a trifling quarrel over a pocketknife”. A second man says he is on the gallows because he “kilt the wrong man”, and he sees men in the crowd worse than he is. Both of these speeches are taken almost verbatim from the novel, if slightly out of order. And then, in a Coen Bros punchline, the third man, an unnamed Native (who in the novel professes his faith in Jesus Christ and compares himself to the thief on the cross) only gets out, “Before I am hanged, I would like to say…” before the hangman shoves a bag onto his head. Both adaptations contain other little nods to unequal justice, but they’re subtle. The ’69 version handles this slightly differently, featuring a bit of side conversation between Mattie and a talkative woman in the stands, who points out Judge Parker sitting atop the courthouse roof, and says that he watches every one of his hangings out of a sense of duty. Kim Darby’s Mattie visibly scoffs at this, and dismisses the woman’s declaration by saying, “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?” What is perhaps unspoken is that Mattie thinks Judge Parker may just like watching people die. Rooster refers to Judge Parker more than once as a “carpetbagger”, and given that this is 1880 Arkansas, it’s fair to say that this characterization carries a lot of the baggage of racist campaigns of terrorism visited upon former enslaved people in this region. Combine this with Rooster’s tendency (asserted to Mattie by the town sheriff, and confirmed under oath on the witness stand) to kill most of the people he is sent out to retrieve, and it’s quite easy to find some modern resonance in this story. Because a huge part of the American frontier myth has always been the concept of throwing together a posse to avenge ourselves, the civilized folk, upon the outlaws and savages who have done us wrong, without any judges or rules of evidence getting in the way. This is perhaps America’s oldest myth, and it persists into the cop genre to this day, because even as we insist upon a desire for justice, we still can’t get enough of the one-man killing machine who Gets Things Done (because he has True Grit, if you like). Even if in practice, we know what this looked like even a century ago. It looks like decades of lynchings and Jim Crow juries refusing to convict their perpetrators. It looked like the terrorist bombing and massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, 1921 – an event I had never heard of in 2010, and which is now HBO TV fodder. In fact, between Watchmen and Westworld, wherein the western genre is rendered literally as a sex/murder nostalgia party with robots, I daresay HBO may have its real measure.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

I still regard True Grit as one of the Coens’ funniest films (owing a great deal to Jeff Bridges‘ performance as Rooster, which vacillates between buffoonish and menacing with remarkable skill). But its punchline is murder of the same, thoroughly justified sort that exists throughout the frontier myth, directed at a conveniently despicable man, Tom Chaney, whom the Coens actually make even more despicable in the 2010 version. In the novel, when Mattie first confronts Chaney in the creek, he immediately expresses regret for killing her father. The ’69 version gives no such dialogue to Jeff Corey‘s Chaney, who merely played him as cocky in his refusal to go quietly (prior to Mattie pulling the dragoon pistol and gut-shooting him). The 2010 version also starts with cockiness and ends with attempted murder by Chaney, but the Coens have Josh Brolin say aloud that he truthfully doesn’t regret killing Mattie’s father at all. Like I said, conveniently despicable. And now, disposable, because he flatly refuses to return and face justice, and he has no regrets. All that remains is to put him in the ground, which Mattie contributes to in both films, albeit a bit differently in each. In the ’69 version, it’s a perfunctory act of self-defense (occurring within a few seconds of Chaney clubbing LaBoeuf in the head), and it doesn’t even finish Chaney off. The shot sends Mattie tumbling into the snakepit to be threatened by a bleeding Chaney from above, before Rooster returns to finish him off. In the 2010 version, Mattie struggles and yanks LaBoeuf’s fallen Sharps carbine from Chaney’s grasp, orders him to his feet, and blasts him off a cliff, before tumbling into the snakepit, as did her predecessor. The difference between these two scenes is subtle (and happens so quickly in both films that I had to rewatch each more than once), but I daresay the Coens are the winners here, sticking more closely to the novel (wherein Mattie’s fatal shot catches Chaney in the head rather than the gut), and putting the moral choice to kill, as well as its immediate consequences, firmly into Mattie’s hands. Or, as LaBoeuf might say, her hand. That’s what makes the upshot of this film work so well. For all the girl’s piety and sense of justice, her violent retribution against Chaney was ultimately unnecessary, and the circumstances were such that she was instantly punished for it, losing a limb for the rest of her life.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This is probably where I should say something nice about Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well as [Coen-alias] Roderick Jaynes‘ editing and Carter Burwell‘s hymnal-influenced score, because it is indeed this triad that makes the Coens’ take on this material so memorable, concluding with Rooster’s desperate midnight ride to save Mattie’s life, and layered throughout the film as it attempts to create a sense of wide-open spaces, isolation, and grandeur. One memorable montage of long fades (easily ten seconds apiece) starts with the trio traveling across the Arkansas prairie into the Choctaw Nation, with a rising crane shot, lush with cool blues and purples, panning upward to keep the riders’ heights uniform with the distant, silhouetted mountains as they ride toward the camera, with the slow fade ushering into a static, warm-hued shot as they ride away across grassland toward a broken line of low, rocky hills. The long fades continue, some to emphasize the position of the sun and the passage of time, some for the changing terrain, and some to highlight Rooster’s varied disposals of his waning supply of whiskey bottles. However shrewdly Mattie operates in the opening act, hiring Rooster was perhaps her least advisable maneuver, choosing the “meanest” marshal even as she is warned that he loves pulling a cork. When we see Mattie (played at age 40 by Elizabeth Marvel as well as a visual stand-in, Ruth Morris), she retains the same rather arbitrary sense of moral clarity, speaking cordially to real-life bandit Cole Younger (Don Pirl), but telling his Wild West Show partner, Frank James, to “Keep your seat, trash,” after the pair reveals that their show partner, Rooster, passed away three days earlier. This moment is straight out of the novel, and offers an explanation from POV character Mattie, who asserts that despite having similar body counts from their outlaw days, Cole Younger spent 25 years in prison for his crimes and expressed a bit of Christian regret, whereas Frank James was acquitted, despite likely pulling the trigger on innocent victims more than once. Hence, trash. But I’m not sure how much credit for irony I can really give this film, opening as it does on a Bible verse (from Proverbs, “The wicked flee where none pursueth”), and sandwiched between a pair of pious voiceovers which emphasize, if nothing else, how little Mattie’s experience changed her, merely ossifying moral tendencies that she possessed since childhood. This is perhaps the most enduring trope of the frontier genre – that a departure from what you regard as civilization is revelatory, but only of the sort of person you always were. And in that sense, the Coen Bros’ True Grit stands strong, even in the Western’s waning years.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #90 – “Hell or High Water” (dir. David Mackenzie)

Poster for "Hell or High Water"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel return from a wander on the plains to review Hell or High Water, a new modern western from Sicario screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, featuring a very familiar Jeff Bridges landing somewhere between his own mumbly personage from True Grit, and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country For Old Men. Can this Southern crime tale do enough to differentiate itself? Tune in and find out (34:17).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “You Ask Me To” by Waylon Jennings from the film’s soundtrack, and Blakwall‘s cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door“, which appeared in the film’s trailer.
  • Steven Michael Quezada and Dean Norris, who played Gomie and Hank respectively in Breaking Bad, are more or less the exact same age. Whoops – we might’ve been reaching a bit hard for this comparison. But Gil Birmingham‘s character definitely played a similar role to Steven Gomez in this film.
  • Also the same age? Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Gonna chock this one up to movie makeup and styling – Foster definitely looked older here.
  • Also nearly the same age? Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham (66 and 63 respectively). So…we really biffed it on the age-related observations in this episode.
  • Apologies, Glenn was getting over the sniffles during this episode – we cut what we could.
  • Reverse mortgages are complicated. We correctly (albeit cynically) described the one that was featured in this film, but we’d encourage you to read up on them in detail before considering this film podcast too instructive on the subject.

Listen above, or download: Hell or High Water (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

2010 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor

#5: Russell Brand – Aldous Snow, Get Him to the Greek

I was worried when I heard that 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall would be getting a spinoff featuring supporting rockstar Aldous Snow. Brand’s performance was certainly a highlight of one of my favorite films of that year, but it was a very broad, drugged-out lothario of a character. Could the rockstar (and Brand) carry his own film?

Somehow, the answer was yes. Nicholas Stoller’s comedy is a significant departure in both tone and content from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Brand’s performance gives some surprising depth to the rockstar Aldous Snow. The film is a broad and scatological comedy with the dark undertone of Snow’s various addictions. It’s also a wild sex romp that relies heavily on Snow’s on-again, off-again one-true-love. The film’s appeal is in its sincerity, and Brand completely commits to this character, warts and all.

#4: Jeff Bridges – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit

I don’t have a lot to say about True Grit, except that it’s a brilliantly written genre exercise. It is a legitimate western as surely as the works of Ford or Leone, and Jeff Bridges’ take on the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn feels right at home. His dialogue is slurred to the point of incomprehensibility, and his appearance is utterly unglamorous. This character is a slobbering, drunken mess, and I mean that as a compliment. I can safely say I’ll never forget this performance, and Bridges deserves every bit of the credit he’s getting for it.

#3: Ryan Reynolds – Paul Conroy, Buried

From my review: “This may be the most electrifying performance yet from Ryan Reynolds. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, Reynolds has crafted a masterful one-man show, and he never lets up on the stakes. Paul is dying alone, and Reynolds deftly conveys his ratcheting hopelessness and frustration.”

It’s Ryan Reynolds kidnapped and buried in a coffin for 90 minutes. That’s the entire film. But the above description may make Buried sound a good deal more serious than it actually plays for much of its runtime. This film is lurid and hopeless, to be sure, but it is also a pulp masterpiece. Its tone and editing style is reminiscent of Hitchcock, and Reynolds plays just the right blend of realistic terror and anger while preventing the character from becoming overly bleak. One scene, in which Paul solicits help (via cell phone) from one of his wife’s loathsome friends, ends with such a pitch-perfect delivery of its final line that my entire theater erupted in laughter. This is a film whose tone lives and dies by the performance of its lead actor, and Reynolds completely pulls it off.

On a related note…

#2: James Franco – Aron Ralston, 127 Hours

Aron Ralston leads a charmed life. He’s a brilliant stuntman – completely in control, but clearly a little unbalanced. Franco had to take this reckless and cocksure character on a physically and emotionally heart-wrenching journey, without any other actors to share the burden for most of the film’s runtime. 127 Hours has a similar premise to Buried – a man gets trapped under a rock for 90 minutes – but it is a very different film in both tone and characterization. Unlike Reynolds’ character above, Ralston doesn’t have access to a cell phone, so he spends the majority of the film talking aloud to himself, or saying nothing at all. The film utilizes various storytelling devices (including one involving a handheld camera that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling), and Franco’s performance played into all of them nicely.

I’m not sure if it’s even possible to spoil this film, since its title, premise, and the fact that it’s based on a true story should be enough to tell you how it ends. But suffice to say, this film takes a brutal and unflinching look at one of the most difficult physical tests ever imposed on a human being, and somehow comes out of it with a heartwarming message about how much life is worth living. It does all of this while wrapped in an unconventional character study, and never once lets Ralston off the hook for getting himself into the situation in the first place. Insofar as this is an exercise in filming the unfilmable, Franco’s performance seems equally improbable. It carries this film, and I know of no other actor who could have pulled this off.

#1: Jesse Eisenberg – Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network

I know Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t know the man, but I recognize the character. Each viewer will likely take away a different interpretation of this performance, depending on their feelings on the real-life Zuckerberg, but this performance stands alone in a film that’s virtually impossible to separate from its real-life context. As a reflection of my time and generation, I found Eisenberg’s captivating and enigmatic portrayal to be utterly unmatched this year. For a character who seems almost defined by a lack of chemistry with the people in his life (reminiscent of Dr. House, perhaps), he also plays brilliantly alongside Andrew Garfield in the film’s most crucial relationship.

This Zuckerberg is hard to read, but conveys a great deal through his glowering stare, or the slightest twitch of a smile. This Zuckerberg is insightful, determined, perhaps even ingenious. And on some level, he knows the effect his actions have had. This Zuckerberg may or may not bear any resemblance to the real one, but Eisenberg’s performance and Sorkin’s script make him the most fascinating and well-realized characters of this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg in Greenberg
  • Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward in The Fighter
  • Michael Cera as Nick Twisp/François Dillinger in Youth in Revolt (Honorable, honorable mention: as Scott Pilgrim in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island
  • Michael Nyqvist as Mikael Blomqvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.