True Grit: Return of the One-Eyed Fat Man
Let us bow our heads in thanks, once again, for the incomparable Roger Deakins. For more than thirty years, Deakins has supplied quietly lush, versatile cinematography to many of the touchstone films in the contemporary English language cinema. Most people are probably familiar with his work from fan-favorite The Shawshank Redemption. The more generous cinephiles may concede that Deakins almost singlehandedly saved The Village, whose texture evoked Rembrandt and Vermeer in all the best ways. He supplied the camerawork for the best film of the past decade, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Deakins has also, since Barton Fink, been the go-to lensman for Joel and Ethan Coen, a collaboration that has yielded dozens, if not hundreds, of memorable tableaux. It’s certainly true that, being a collaborative medium, the way a film looks is perhaps as much due to the vision of the director as it is the cinematographer, but a key facet of great filmmaking talent is knowing how to work with a variety of people, and treasuring the collaborations with those who share one’s sensibilities. It would seem self-evident that one of the most fruitful collaborations of the films made during my lifetime would be that between the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins (rivaled in nature perhaps only by that between Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle). So it is that, with True Grit, Deakins has established himself as the pre-eminent cinematic painter of the American West.
The Coens have done their fair share of postmodern mythologizing of the West throughout their career. Blood Simple offered a sardonic tale of murder and betrayal in rustic Texas in then-contemporary 1984; later on, the brothers returned to the 1980s Southwest in 2008’s No Country for Old Men. Even 1998’s The Big Lebowski incorporated Western tropes because, well, why the hell not? It incorporated a bit of everything else. A lot of critics have suggested that True Grit is the brothers’ first “serious” film, in the sense that they’ve expunged almost all of the exaggerated, deadpan wackiness that characterizes so much of their filmography. This is patently untrue, of course, as evidenced by the scene in which U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn and his employer, the tenacious, 14-year-old Mattie Ross wait expectantly in a snow-dusted forest clearing for the appearance of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Instead, a dentist sporting a mountain man beard and wearing a giant black bearskin rounds the curve leading a horse bearing the body of a man they had just traded away. (You read that right.) Jeff Bridges, as Cogburn, delivers a patent Coen rejoinder to the man’s appearance: “You aren’t LaBoeuf.”
Most Coen films are about characters who think they are smart, slick operators who are cleverly manipulating events to their own advantage. By the end of these films, these selfsame slick operators are lucky to survive with all of their appendages intact, because the humor and drama of a Coen story is in the drastic measures the universe takes to remind the pitiful little would-be mavericks how not in control they are. So it is with True Grit, in which Mattie — a merchant’s daughter with the devil’s own knack for driving a hard bargain — thinks she’s corralled the meanest bounty hunter in the Territory into tracking down her father’s killer for her, but once she’s wound him up, paid him, and sent him forth, she finds that the old bastard has a mind of his own (not to mention a hollow leg that would put F. Scott Fitzgerald to shame). Nothing pans out the way the characters think it should. Not quite. Even within the confines of an established Western classic, the Coens find a way to emphasize the way even the most able, driven, and tough people don’t necessarily get what they want in the way they want it. Naturally, the directors achieve this by a meticulous attention to craft and structure.
The biggest difference between early Coens and later Coens is not that the early ones’ plots hinge on coincidence, communication, mercenary desires, and rare, lovely bursts of altruism. These elements are the same. The difference is that, in the past, the Coens would tie all the plot threads together — much like the Dude’s rug did for his living room — by the end of the film, even if it meant wryly poking fun at the notion of having to tie things together at all. Barton Fink broke from this a bit, but that film was more overtly surreal than their others, and much more of a psychological portrait, rather than a genre tale. Since No Country for Old Men, however, the Coens have experimented with the liberation of crafting a story more around thematic resonance and the narrative form of free-form (i.e. “real”) consequences. So it is that Burn After Reading explicitly stated the brothers’ thesis that maybe some stories don’t have a point or moral, and A Serious Man both inverted and extended that idea by bringing it into a spiritual context. Maybe they’re just about people and situations, and we can take from them what we will. As usual, even the appearance of such loose story construction is tightly scripted, but as far as deliberate attempts to thwart audience expectations go, the Coens have successfully managed in their last three films to deny audiences closure in without sacrificing their expert sense of pacing.
With True Grit, they change that up a bit. The story itself ends a bit conventionally, but the journey follows follows the digressions and dead ends that face investigators in most crime procedurals — totally upending the crackling, nervous propulsion and frenetic editing we associate with tripe like CSI or Criminal Minds. The purpose of the leisurely exposition is to instill in viewers the sense that perhaps this is just one more cold case that could join the heaps of other unsolved crimes and atrocities buried under the mythology of the Wild West. Bridges’ canny interpretation of Cogburn gives the impression that he never thought he’d even catch Tom Chaney, the murderer of Mattie’s father; he was in it to settle a score with an old foe, or at least find a way to pass the time between binges. Even Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger seems more concerned with keeping up appearances than in making an arrest; he talks big, bluffing perhaps even himself into forgetting that even if he managed to catch up with the killer he’s spent months tracking, he wouldn’t have any idea what to do. Only Mattie seems to think she’s charting a course along a conventional plotline; she even seeks out genre tropes as her riding partners. So she’s the only one who seems genuinely surprised when it turns out one rainy night that she’s never going to catch her daddy’s killer, and all the time she’s spent wandering the untamed prairie has been “padding” in the story of her own life.
Well, the Coens aren’t quite that pitiless after all. Scenes of men skeet shooting cornbread aside, the brothers can’t resist staging a bravura showdown, so just when all hope seems lost, the filmmakers’ old collaborator, Coincidence, once again intercedes, reuniting the protagonists with their quarry. Events tumble along speedily once the other half of the big-name character actors show up. There is much gunplay, a rousing swell of Carter Burwell’s musical orchestration, and a last-minute race against time. It’s almost as if the brothers put off making a “real” Western as long as they could, and then genre necessity, stretched to the limit, snapped back into place like a bowstring.
The change is sudden and fierce. We get our first real glimpse of Josh Brolin — the 21st century’s first, best offering of a character actor opening up utterly overwhelming reserves of previously untapped talent — who turns out to be a prelude to the Coens’ secret weapon: Harry Dean Stanton. That is to say, Lucky Ned Pepper is played by an actor who cannily conjures the ghost of Stanton’s screen roles past. Barry Pepper himself — no relation to the fictive character he’s playing! — has sort of haunted the edges of mainstream cinema for the last several years, appearing infrequently in major motion pictures and more commonly in the kind of smaller film that might be released around Oscar time by the mini-majors. I don’t think I’ve seen a better bit part performance in any of the films from the last year. Flashes of Robert Duvall’s tetchiness (especially from 2003’s great Open Range) do flit through the performance, but the overriding echo is of Stanton’s performances in Repo Men and The Last Temptation of Christ — a burned-out husk who still commands loyalty, respect, and fear.1 When Lucky Ned sits down with Mattie for a brief parley after he’s taken her hostage as insurance against Rooster, there are always about a dozen potential things going on at once — his relief at having someone who is not an idiot to talk to, incredulity at her insouciance, amusement, unexpected generosity (unexpected, perhaps, even to him) — but knitting it all together is a half-crazy lucidity, the kind of clarity of vision that can perhaps only be achieved by a man who has peered into the abyss and taken a vault over the side. Appropriately enough, this conversation is conducted only a few feet away from a cliff’s edge.
Pepper’s is easily the best performance in the film, but the accolades for the rest are equally well-deserved. What strikes me anew each time I see a Coen brothers film is how craftily they cast their supporting players. Not every film is as rich in bit parts as True Grit, but the filmmakers draw from a large pool of almost-recognizable faces and voices to populate their lushly-photographed Western landscape. Take, for instance, one of the film’s best standalone scenes. A fair case could be made that the scene turns into a digression; it’s a bit long, a courtroom scene. Our first introduction to Rooster Cogburn in his professional capacity as a marshal achieves two things: it demonstrates to Mattie (and the audience) that Cogburn is entirely comfortable with bending the law a bit in order to uphold it in spirit, and it demonstrates just how fallible and shortsighted the meanest marshal in the West is. Both things are shown in the clearest possible terms, yet Mattie only sees the first. Joe Stevens plays the defense attorney who slices Rooster and his testimony to ribbons; Bridges is in top form, but the dimensions of his character are only highlighted in contrast to the smooth intensity — a skillful concoction of righteous indignation and slippery, mercantile sophistry — of the lawyer. The entire scene actually reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s marvelous scene staging in Inglourious Basterds, and it just plain wouldn’t work if the towering presence of Jeff Bridges as the iconic Rooster Cogburn was foiled by another “name” actor. Stevens is every bit Bridges’ equal as an actor, but the way Bridges is deployed ties his screen presence to his recognizability. Hailee Steinfeld gets a similarly wonderful scene, squaring off against the more recognizable Dakin Matthews, but the way the Coens indulge their own dialogue — and, by extension, their razor-sharp acting company — has all the hallmarks of masters who are relaxed enough about their virtuosity to sacrifice efficiency to a bit of cinephilic indulgence for the sake of flavor. The result is a more flawed, more zesty recipe.
The dialogue itself has generated a lot of comment, often in conjunction with the Coens’ propensity for transferring entire exchanges directly from page to screen. Kevin Pearson wrote, “The dialogue is good for style sake, but it acts as if it’s catering to a full realistic evaluation of a situation. It’s not. The dialogue feels expressive as a movie like The Sweet Smell of Success, but it isn’t nearly as inventive as that film.” I’m not sure the Coens set out to be inventive. Making a conventional Western by necessity means that filmmakers are not setting out the re-invent the wheel; merely to take a joy ride with it. The florid, prose-poem passages spoken by the characters are reminiscent of the interminable monologues that plagued HBO’s Deadwood, without the nigh-impenetrable circumlocution. As a stylistic device, the Coens have always leaned on idiomatic dialogue. Miller’s Crossing in particular is a virtual literary index of the hard-boiled dialogue of Dashiell Hammett, but films like Fargo and Raising Arizona have taken regional dialects and heightened them to a level bordering on absurdity. People do not talk like this in real life, nor do most characters talk like this in cinema. As with the technical jargon in Shane Carruth’s Primer, the main purpose of this dialogue is world-building as much as it is to convey exposition and characterization. This may not be the “real” West, but with their ear for specificity in tone, the Coens use the dialogue to situate the audience in a very particular headspace, a time and place where the stylized dialogue is, relatively speaking, naturalistic. It’s lyrical and real, even if it is a myth.
Where the Coens stumble is with their ear for music. Carter Burwell supplies a robust score, perhaps more serviceable than outstanding, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is the Coens shoehorning an obviously anachronistic recording of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” for the final shot and credits. The song choice is appropriate, if typically arch, of the brothers. Modern recording techniques were highlighted in the main body of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to arguable stylistic effect. Here, in a film that mostly hearkens to a hermetically sealed sense of authenticity, it feels like an intrusion. Perhaps the Coens are angling for their Iris DeMent to score a Grammy; she’s got a wonderful voice, and she sounds like the real deal. It just doesn’t work for the film, and it feels like mass produced nostalgia, rather than an earnest throwback to earlier cinematic tropes.
While alighting on a grace note, this is how the ending of the film reminds us that the Coens are extremely aware of the ways in which they, as masters of the medium, can mess around with expectations and narrative convention. Genre tropes are as much regular Coen collaborators as the magisterial Deakins or character actors like John Turturro and Steve Buscemi. The brothers aren’t quite postmodern; True Grit is proof that, while they are aware of the tropes associated with the American Western, they can pay homage to them while simultaneously filtering them through their own slightly exaggerated vision. Much has been said of the Coens’ sense of humor, and the way their often rather arch worldview skews their films toward being more performance pieces that draw attention to the brothers’ flourishes (those being a predilection toward deadpan delivery, emphasis on regional drawls, closed-loop narrative pyrotechnics, offbeat widescreen compositions, stupid characters who think they’re the smartest guys in the room, etc.), as opposed to a signet style of craftsmanship. True Grit clarifies this distinction. The way the Coens tend to adhere to genre conventions is much the same way that all great artists use established formulae in ways that, while mimicking something old, create something inimitable. It’s the kind of ineffable spark that appears between certain actors on film that we ineffectually term “chemistry.” The Coens create chemistry with genre tropes; they don’t lean on them, but treat them with respect, having fun with them. Tropes are, to echo Miller’s Crossing, hallowed by usage and consecrated by time. In choosing Iris DeMent (a very gifted singer), the brothers show that they have an affinity toward other artists who share an affinity for the artifacts of our cultural heritage. The fact that the production on DeMent’s recording is unsuitably anachronistic is perhaps a symptom of the Coens’ urge to wink at the audience at inopportune times — as if they’re a bit ashamed of relishing the freedom to plumb primary sources for inspiration and recapitulate them in their own terms.
The way that most filmmakers use genre conventions is lazy or simply an ill fit. They don’t really understand the evolution of these tropes, or how they’ve interacted with audiences and filmmakers all along. The Coens not only fundamentally grasp the place of genre tropes, they fully appreciate the sheer joy that can be found in making the connection — of igniting that spark — with them, the way people do when they see them for the first time. For the Coens, nearly every film is a first time, even when they’re doing a remake, like The Ladykillers, or a second adaptation of a book that has already once been successfully adapted, as in the case of True Grit. As transfixed by the Western as they may be, (and the audience, by extension, should be), they find in it inspiration for larger ideas, like the rare intersections of pitilessness and compassion. A lot of mileage can be gotten out of old stories and old ways of telling stories, so long as the tellers are energetic, enthusiastic, and genuine. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, trotting out genre tropes is a bit like a kid trying on his dad’s old boots. He can clomp around and make a cute little ruckus, but the boots aren’t really being put to any good use. When filmmakers on the level of Joel and Ethan Coen slide into those old boots, the truth becomes clear: they really can fill the old man’s shoes.
Or, in this case, the old Duke’s.
Edited by Matt Kessen.
- By coincidence — or is it? — Pepper’s character in The Green Mile was named Dean Stanton. ↩