In 1968, an American author named Charles Portis published a book called True Grit. The story of a young girl who turns to an aging, drunken marshal named Rooster Cogburn to avenge the death of her father by a drifter. With help from a Texas ranger named La Boeuf, the three go after the drifter. The Western story captivated actor John Wayne as he was able to get a film made for director Henry Hathaway as Wayne would win an Oscar for Best Actor as Rooster Cogburn. In 2010, another adaptation of True Grit emerges as it’s in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen.
Written for the screen and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, their adaptation of True Grit is based more on the book rather than the 1969 Henry Hathaway film that starred John Wayne. Particularly on the fact that the book was told from the perspective of the 14-year old girl Mattie Ross. With this new perspective, the Coen Brothers go for a darker yet grittier Western that is less romanticized in Hathaway’s film. With The Big Lebowski’s Jeff Bridges taking on the role of Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon as La Boeuf. The film also stars Coen Brothers regular Josh Brolin plus Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Leon Russom, Paul Rae, and introducing Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. True Grit is a gritty, humorous, and breathtaking film from the Coen Brothers.
In Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1877, a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) killed a man named Frank Ross and stole two horses plus two gold pieces. Ross’ 14-year old daughter Mattie comes to collect her father’s belongings as well as settle some business. She also wants vengeance for his father’s death as she knew it was Chaney as she asks about who should she turn to. Learning about the reputation of Rooster Cogburn, Mattie turns to the grizzled, drunken marshal for help but he rebuffs her. After a few days of businesses including getting money over the lost horses from Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), she meets a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf who is also after Chaney over the death of a Senator.
Though she rejects La Boeuf’s offer, she tries to go Cogburn again with an offer which he accepts. On the day she was to join Cogburn, he sends her a note to go home as she later follows him where he’s joined by La Boeuf. Though Cogburn takes Mattie to the journey with reluctance, La Boeuf goes on his own as Cogburn and Ross go on Chaney’s trail. After finding a gold piece, they go to the home of a couple outlaws where they ask about Chaney but trouble happened when the two outlaws turned on each other. After getting some information from the younger outlaw, they learn that Chaney has joined the gang of “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) whom they were waiting for.
Cogburn and Ross hide to wait for Pepper and his gang where they see La Boeuf riding ahead as he’s cornered by Pepper’s gang. Though Cogburn was able to save La Boeuf, he did accidentally shoot La Boeuf as the Ranger joins Cogburn and Ross. With the trio of Cogburn, Ross, and La Boeuf trying to find Chaney and Pepper, the journey becomes difficult as another argument between La Boeuf and a drunken Cogburn leads to despair for Mattie. Then one day, she sees Chaney as she confronts him while Chaney takes her to the crazed Pepper as Cogburn sees what happen. With Pepper using Mattie as a tool to lure Cogburn, it all leads to a climatic showdown.
The film is essentially about vengeance for a young girl who lost her father in the hands of a drifter. Yet, she wants justice as she turns to a merciless but drunken marshal and a young Texas Ranger to help her in the journey to find this drifter named Tom Chaney. While the 1969 film by Henry Hathaway was more about Rooster Cogburn than Mattie Ross. The Coen Brothers chose to stick to the original source material and in doing so. They tell it from the perspective of Mattie Ross.
The film opens with a voiceover narration by an older Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) where the narration appears again near the end of the film where the older Ross is finally seen 25 years later. Since she is a character that is very tough with the people she meets in terms of business. She is also someone that wants to have justice for her father while finding some way to get things the right way. Even in making sure Tom Chaney is brought to justice. That’s when she turns to Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal who has done a fair share of killing while has a penchant for drinking whiskey. Then there’s La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who plays by his own set of rules and is the most disciplined though is reluctant in taking Mattie to the journey to find Chaney.
When the journey takes place throughout the entirety of the second act, the relationship between the three does develop. Though Cogburn’s alcoholism is an issue along with La Boeuf’s way to do things himself. They later find a mutual respect of sorts towards each other as well as their relationship with Mattie. Though she is seem as a nuisance to them, La Boeuf would have respect for her later on while Cogburn also becomes an unlikely caretaker to her. The Coen Brothers’ interest in relationships and the journey is important to the story as they add a few of their own brand of humor into the film. Notably a scene where Mattie and Cogburn encounter a man wearing bear skin (Ed Corbin).
The script the Coen Brothers create is faithful while it allows them to put their own spin to the story by adding some humor. The direction of the Coens is truly intoxicating. While the Coens maintain a certain grit that is more realistic than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film. It’s also one of the more straightforward films the Coens have made since they’re creating a Western that doesn’t just play to formula where there’s a climatic showdown near the end. It’s also about the journey where the Coens often have the camera following the trio as well as go into the woods and desert. A lot of which is shot on location in Santa Fe and parts of Texas. Even as they use tracking shots and steadicams for some of the film’s intense action sequences. Overall, it’s the Coen Brothers at their finest as they bring their own style into their take into the Western genre.
Longtime collaborator Roger Deakins does a phenomenal job with the film’s lush, hypnotic cinematography. Deakins’ work for many of the film’s exterior recalls some of the work he did for Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Yet, Deakins chose to maintain the grittiness of the film by surrounding himself in dirtier locations. Even in the interiors, the photography is more intimate with some amazing shading in the courtroom scene where Cogburn testifies. The nighttime exteriors also have a dreamlike look that is gorgeous to watch as Deakins’ work is definitely the film’s technical highlight.
The editing by the Coen Brothers, under the alias Roderick Jaynes, is definitely superb for its leisurely-paced rhythm and stylized use of dissolves and transitional cuts. Notably the way the transitions cut to black and then goes to a new scene where it’s the Coens creating a mood for the film. When it comes to the more active, shootout scenes, the Coens definitely picks up the pace as it’s definitely editing at its finest.
Production designer Jess Gonchor, along with set decorator Nancy Haigh and art directors Stefan Dechant and Christina Ann Wilson, does an amazing job with the recreation of late 19th Century Fort Smith with buildings, saloons, and hotels where it feels like a real place. Even the cabins that the main characters encounter have an authentic feel to it as the art direction is outstanding. Costume designer Mary Zophres, another longtime Coen Brothers collaborator, is superb with her late 19th Century clothing filled with dresses and old cowboy clothes the men wear along with the jangly spurs that La Boeuf wears as Zophres continues to create great costumes.
Longtime Coen Brothers sound editor Skip Lievsay and sound designer Craig Berkey do a spectacular job with the film’s sound. Whether it’s the hollow atmosphere of the courtroom that Cogburn was testifying in or the calm landscape where Cogburn, Ross, and La Boeuf are. The sound work is definitely masterful for what is needed. Even with the shootout scenes as the gunshots play to the story of what the characters needed to do. Longtime Coen Brothers’ music composer Carter Burwell does a fantastic job with the few score pieces he creates. Notably some intense, dramatic pieces for the climatic shootouts and a few other key scenes. Yet, the soundtrack is mostly surrounded by hymns and other traditional pieces along with the song Leaning On the Everlasting Arms that is sung by Iris DeMent in the closing credits.
The casting by longtime Coen Brothers cohort Ellen Chenoweth plus Jo Edna Boldin and Rachel Tenner is definitely inspiring not just for its cast of big actors but also for its use of lesser-known actors. In small but memorable roles, there’s Ed Corbin as a man wearing a bear skin, Jarlath Conroy as an undertaker, Leon Russom as the sheriff, Peter Leung as Cogburn’s Chinese friend Mr. Lee, Orlando Smart as a stable boy, Candyce Hinkle as the landlady, and Joe Stevens as a cross-examining lawyer at the trial Cogburn is testifying at. Other notable small supporting roles that are very memorable include Paul Rae and Domhnall Gleeson as the two men at the cabin that Cogburn confronts, Elizabeth Marvel as the 40-year old Mattie Ross, and Dakin Matthews in a very funny performance as Col. Stonehill.
Barry Pepper is great as the dirty, nasty-looking “Lucky” Ned Pepper as a brutish man who is a criminal with a code of honor. Even as he faces off against Cogburn in a fight while they do some talking before the battle as Pepper definitely shines in his brief role. Josh Brolin is superb as Tom Chaney, the drifter who killed Mattie Ross’ father. Brolin brings a terrifying presence as well as a guy who is just a simple criminal and a fuck-up with no sense of remorse as it’s definitely a phenomenal performance from Brolin. Matt Damon delivers a truly solid yet comical performance as La Boeuf. Damon plays up to the character’s individuality and no-nonsense attitude while often sneering at Cogburn over his age and personality. While Damon gets to be funny, he also is someone who understands the sense of honor in the West as he makes La Boeuf into a complex everyman that audiences can relate to.
In the role that won the legendary John Wayne his only Academy Award for Best Actor in 1969. The character of Rooster Cogburn needed someone that personifies everything that is great about American cinema and no actor represents that better than Jeff Bridges. Though Bridges doesn’t try to imitate John Wayne in terms of creating a grand presence and personality. Instead, he makes Cogburn into his own by playing up to his haggard, drunken persona as well as someone who has honor though doesn’t always have the right intentions. Even as Bridges brings a bit of the Dude to make the character humorous while he’s also the kind of man you don’t want to face in a duel as it’s definitely a towering follow-up to his performance in 2009’s Crazy Heart which he won the Best Actor Oscar that year.
Finally, there’s Hailee Steinfeld in what is definitely a magnificent debut performance. Playing the role of Mattie Ross, Steinfeld has all of the character’s no-nonsense attitude about business and vengeance. Even as she outsmarts all of the people who were dealing her father’s dealings as well as even someone like Cogburn and La Boeuf. Though Steinfeld is restrained at times, she is mostly lively as she is someone hell-bent on going after Tom Chaney while having great chemistry with veterans as Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Even where she out-performs them at times where its clear that the veterans are intimidated by her. It’s definitely one of the best discoveries of 2010 and what a way to be discovered in a film by the Coen Brothers with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
The Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit is definitely one of the brothers’ most phenomenal and entertaining films of their career. Featuring superb performances from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Though it may not have some of the grittiness of their other films like Blood Simple, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, and No Country for Old Men, it is a film where the Coens play it straight but show what they can do with the Western genre. Featuring some great technical work including Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography. It’s a film that still proves that the Western is alive and well as it’s something fans of that genre can enjoy. In the end, True Grit is another spectacular film from the Coen Brothers.
Coen Brothers Films: Blood Simple - Raising Arizona - Miller’s Crossing - Barton Fink - The Hudsucker Proxy - Fargo - The Big Lebowski - O Brother, Where Art Thou? - The Man Who Wasn’t There - Intolerable Cruelty - The Ladykillers (2004 film) - Paris Je T'aime-Tuileries - To Each His Own Cinema-World Cinema - No Country for Old Men - Burn After Reading - A Serious Man - Inside Llewyn Davis - Hail, Caesar!
The Auteurs #9: The Coen Brothers Pt. 1 - The Auteurs #9: The Coen Brothers Pt. 2
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