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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

MW on Movies: True Grit

True Grit (Four Stars)

U.S.: Ethan and Joel Coen (The Coen Brothers), 2010

Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old heroine of the new Coen Brothers movie, True Grit, — the Coens’ remake of the 1969 classic with John Wayne — is the kind of spunky, indomitable little kid we’d have all liked to have known, or to be, or to have gone on adventures with. She‘s a sort of girl Huck Finn, but not an outlaw Huck, riding a beautiful, faithful pony through a kind of Western wonderland, a sometimes scarily fantastic, sometimes bitterly realistic landscape filled with real-life monsters and gunslingers who might have frozen Huck’s and Tom’s blood.

One thing the movies are often good at is giving us imaginary friends. Traveling through the Old West of the 1870’s in search of her father‘s ex-employee and murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), tagging behind a sometimes drunken U S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom she hired, and an exasperated Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who wants to get rid if her, Mattie never seems to let anything (except once) faze her. And the actress who plays Mattie, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (a newcomer from TV) doesn’t flinch or falter either.

These are superb performances (Bridges, Damon, Brolin and Steinfeld) in superbly written parts, in a great movie — and also, I would insist, in a quintessential Coen Brothers movie (even though it’s been called a departure by some, and I see their point). The Coens, in their prime right now, are the kings of neo-noir. This is Western neo-noir. They‘re the most literate of contemporary genre cineastes: darkly comic chroniclers of a parched, deadly (mostly Western) American landscape populated with citizens, cops, sharpsters, killers, phonies, monsters, and some innocent people who somehow survive it all. This is one of their most literate language-loving movies. And it’s all of the above too.


True Grit is constructed as a revenge western. But, pure as it may seem to some, this movie, in true Coen fashion, sprawls all over the genre map: dark comedy, light comedy, buried romance (love buried under the revenge), “coming of age“ tale, horror movie, neo-noir, revisionist history. And its told in a dark, comic vein that makes the final revelations of that love — Rooster’s desperate rescue of Mattie from snakebite, and her last “visit” to see him in a Wild West show — all the more touching.


In the beginning, Mattie talks to us and we like to listen. A likable if very serious lass, she discovers her father’s murder, cleans up his affairs, and uses part of the money to hire a sloppy-looking but reputedly deadly U. S. Marshall to track the killer down, thereby plunging herself into the “other” world, the dark world of murder and lawlessness, most ladylike teenage girls never see.

There’s a dark comicality in the fish-out-of-water dissonance between this movie’s narrator and her subject. The teenage Mattie, face impassive as a young nurse tending a troublesome patient, maintains equanimity, good manners and her faith in the Lord, in the hairiest of situations. She never loses her cool, whether she’s engaged in a heated business discussion with the local bigwig and horse dealer Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), left on the dock with the ferry (and adventure) leaving, plumb in the middle of several shootouts and eyewitness to a number of cold-blooded killings (including some by her allies), forced to shinny up a tree to its loftiest branches to cut loose a hanged man’s corpse being picked at by buzzards, kidnapped by a sociopath with a rifle and harried by a gang of oddballs, shot at by miscreants, or thrown into a cave full of rattlesnakes with a murderer lurking outside.

A girl after my own heart! And after the hearts of most of the people who read the 1968 book (initially a Saturday Evening Post serial) by Southerner and ex-reporter Charles Portis, or who saw the well-loved 1969 movie, with Duke Wayne in his Oscar winning performance as Rooster, Kim Darby and C&W singer Glen (Rhinestone Cowboy) Campbell as Mattie and LaBoeuf, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Jeff Corey among the various outlaws (respectively Lucky Ned Pepper, Moon and Tom Chaney), Strother Martin as the horse dealer, the great Lucien Ballard behind the camera (in the same year Ballard also shot The Wild Bunch), Elmer Bernstein Magnificent Seven-ing up the sound track and, at the helm, the celebrated hard-ass director Henry Hathaway.

It was Hathaway, a renowned on-set yeller, who, in one famous incident of actor intransigence colliding with directorial will, reportedly stretched Hopper to a hundred takes or so on a scene in 1958‘s underrated From Hell to Texas, and then allegedly got Dennis blacklisted for a while (or so they say), not for politics but for insubordination. But bygones are bygones and here Hopper is, working for Hathaway again, in the very same year he made Easy Rider, playing a character who gets stabbed in the gut and dies in agony. (No way the bastard does 100 takes on that.)

Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most consistently excellent American moviemakers now active, and director-writers of the classics Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, have a style (and tempers) a world away from Hathaway (except, perhaps, for the mutual strong taste of all three for film noir). And some sources say the Coens deliberately didn’t watch the original Grit before embarking on this one. In any case, the Coens’ True Grit is very different, in style, tone and attack from the earlier one — though the screenplays are actually eerily close.

The 1969 Grit scenarist was Marguerite Roberts, a brilliant, hard-nosed longtime screenwriter and the daughter of an actual Western wagon train traveler. (Duke Wayne, interestingly, apparently never objected to Roberts’ employment, even though he was an ex-president of the Red Scare-peddling Motion Picture Association for the Preservation of American Ideals, and Roberts was a one-time blacklist victim.)

Many of the scenes in both movies are the same, and so is a lot of the dialogue, a lot of which obviously comes from the novel. I have to confess I got a big thrill at the end of the remake, when Barry Pepper, as Lucky Ned Pepper (the Duvall part), and Bridges as Rooster, reprised that spine-chilling “True Grit” pre-showdown interchange “Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” (Lucky Ned), and “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”(Rooster.)

What the Coens have done with True Grit is to alter its mood and overall vision, darkening it considerably, while keeping most of the story and characters intact, and adding material from the novel that wasn‘t used — to make it both more nightmarish (more noir) and more believable, to give it a heightened sense of danger and madness.

They‘ve also summoned up a strange, near comic sense of gallantry within the madness, an odd tender devotion to duty (for “villain“ Ned and “heroes“ LaBoeuf and Rooster alike ), taken us to the limits in the story of morality and pathology, and into “Grit’s” weird post–Civil War borderland, the Huck Finnish “territory ahead” through which the characters are passing or hiding out. All of this is as perceived, of course, by Mattie, who believes so staunchly in a moral, Heaven-bossed universe run by a loving but fatherly and justice-minded God. But who, of course, wants a good killer on her side.

Hathaway’s Grit, which I like very much (I saw it again, just last night, for the first time in almost forty years and I enjoyed it all over again), takes place in a beautiful National Park world of green valleys, healthy forests, rushing rivers, and high mountains stretched against halcyon blue skies, a ‘50s Western world we’d like to stay in, if only the good guys and the bad guys would stop shooting now and then.

The world of the Coens’ True Grit is in some ways that same beautiful unsafe place, but darker, dustier, more notably ravaged by the Civil War, by rampaging lawlessness and by the Puritan ethic: a horrific landscape of frequent slaughter where the land can be a bit dim and smoky-gray and even Edgar Allen Poe-ish, where corpses are commodities, where people sneak in the dark and where hero and villain alike shoot people in the back, and the sky seems sometimes overcast and dour, dwarfing the death dealers wandering below. It’s a world as close to Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Man) as it is to Mark Twain, as near Faulkner as it is to Ford.

The same things happen, but the emphasis is different, the light paler and colder. In Hathaway’s Grit, Duke Wayne’s Rooster is avuncular and genial, like a kindly colorful, raffish uncle/politician who drinks too much and likes to pass out candy to the kids. His anecdotes often seem to be semi-tall tales he‘s spinning or embroidering (a bit) to amuse Mattie. In the Coen Grit, we believe almost every damned thing Rooster says (unless he‘s on the witness stand), and what he says is often pretty damned scary. (Or even what he doesn’t say, about Lawrence, Kansas, for instance). So are the people we meet: like the gent in the bearskin suit they run across, transporting a corpse.

So is Jeff Bridges. He won’t get the Oscar this time. (Colin Firth probably will.) But it’s one of his most stunning, unexpected, shockingly good and brilliantly pulled-back performances. In some ways, Bridges’ Rooster carries the whole dark, wild weight of America‘s frontier ethic and the tragedy of the Civil War years behind him. (I may be wrong, but all the film’s outlaws and lawmen seem to be ex-Rebels.)

Wayne’s Rooster was expansive and genial, a gifted speechifier with a sure sense of his audience (including his best friend, a little cat) who’s told his stories a hundred times and knows where all the laugh lines are (“Well, come see a fat, old man some day!”), but keeps it all alive. His Rooster was drunken and slovenly (as well as fat and old, though Wayne wore a hairpiece). But, in most ways, he was far more civilized than Bridges’ Rooster.

Bridge‘s Rooster is a man on believably intimate terms with death, to whom it’s just a job he knows all too well, and he‘s not congenial about it. (Or comic, though he has a certain wry professionalism.) And he’s no speechifier. When we first hear hear Bridges’ speaking voice for Rooster — a glum, gruff monotone, rattling like dry corn husks in his old throat, a delivery of crushing emotional barrenness in which he seems to be always swallowing and chewing a few words as he expectorates others — it’s a bit of a shock.

Bridges, one of the most likable of all American movie actors, a guy you sometimes root for as we used to root for Paul Newman, doesn’t seem to be doing much at all to make us like Rooster, beyond observing proper courtroom deportment (so he’ll get paid). In fact, other than doing his job with minimum fuss, Rooster at first doesn’t seem to give much of a damn about anything or anybody in the world, except his maybe his landlord, the opium-smoking Mr. Lee. And whiskey, of course. And eventually, Mattie.

Bridges and the Coens could have played Rooster for comedy, as Wayne did, and audience probably would have loved him, loved the movie, as they still love Hathaway‘s. That they choose to downplay comedy, something at which they’re all experts (The Big Lebowski!), is a pretty damned brave choice. Making people laugh is the best insurance policy for any movie. But for me, the darker take finally paid off, especially the second time I watched the movie, and the full passionate melancholy of True Grit, and of Rooster’s life, really burst in on me.

That isolation and its hints of cruelty below are maybe why Mattie likes and chooses Rooster. Bridges’ Rooster has that vicious all-American quality D. H Lawrence spoke of (admiringly) as “harsh, isolate, stoic and a killer.”

Mattie keeps saying she picked Rooster because she was told he had true grit. But maybe what truly swayed her was the description of Marshal Cogburn as the “meanest” of the man hunters available. Maybe she wanted a truly cruel bastard to collar her dad‘s killer. And Rooster not only has a rep for bloodshed (in court, an antagonistic attorney asks Rooster to keep the tally of his slain down to “a manageable level“ and Rooster obliges with twenty or so, though we suspect he’s lying). He also rode with Quantrill‘s Raiders, bloodiest of the Civil War Rebel guerilla bands, the troop behind the massacre at Lawrence, Kansas. (Remember Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil?)

Rooster though still defends Quantrill, in a manner that suggests he bristles at being associated with killers of women and children, arguing with LaBoeuf, who cites “Bloody Lawrence, Kansas” to refute him. But, when Rooster talks to Mattie, about anything, it’s weird and heartfelt. His voice rumbles away like an ill-used machine he only pulls out for trials and depositions, and you get the sense, as Wayne never gave us — that Rooster has barely talked to anyone much for all these years, at least in the stiff but unguarded way he opens up to Mattie. Instead, he’s a solitary drinker whom the world ignores (unless they need his services) and who communes mostly with his cat.

Bridges plays Rooster as a very sad man, a killer and a drunk who works for the law but doesn’t really socialize with it. Wayne played him as a tough old gunslinging raconteur, the life of the party, with lots of salty, funny stories. (Bridges’ Rooster is more like a sadder version of Wayne‘s wanderer Ethan Edwards, the actor’s best performance, in The Searchers, and there’s one scene where the Coens even frame Bridges against an open doorway like the famous “Searchers“ opening and closing shots.)

There are some other first-class performances in the Coen’s Grit, just as there were in Hathaway’s. Remember Strother Martin in the ‘69 movie, horse-trading? Remember Duvall’s Ned Pepper and his fairplay-killer’s code and the way he said “Rooster, I am shot to pieces,” as he lurched forward toward the fallen Cogburn, pinned under his horse. And oh God, remember the way Dennis died, and didn’t get his cup of water?

This Grit has standout support too. Damon plays the naiveté and soldier-boy rectitude of LaBoeuf (no relation) with a real heartland uprightness and fervor the actor is good at. Barry Pepper is fine as his namesake Lucky Ned Pepper (no relation), though he‘s no Duvall. Josh Brolin, who had a great year — also as the sneaky guilt-ridden writer/plagiarist in Woody Allen‘s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger — plays mean, heartless outlawry to perfection as Tom Chaney. (No relation.) One look at Chaney’s slack jaw and glittering eyes, one listen to his sloppy drawl, and you know he’ll shoot anyone in the back, though he’ll maybe count to ten before he shoots his grandmother. Dakin Matthews deserves a really fine compliment: he’s just as good as Strother Martin was.

Hailee Steinfeld has the film’s key role — even if Rooster remains the best and richest part — and in the end, she nails Mattie’s spunk and brains and deliberate non-flirtatiousness and sobriety. We believe her, all the way, and she moves us.

(By the way, I hate to bring it up, but Ms. Steinfeld, who deserves lots of recognition for her excellence here, and has been winning some supporting actress trophies for this performance — including one from one of my groups, Chicago — was actually the lead actress of True Grit. She has, in fact, the biggest part in the entire movie, and I believe that slotting her in an obviously wrong category like this is unfair to the actual “supporting” actresses, who have to make an equal impression with far less text and exposure.)


In the Coen’s Grit, it becomes clear just how dangerous Mattie is to that darker, bleaker Portis-Coen world. Once Rooster accepts her, and becomes her shaggy, sometimes boiled, sharp shooting knight, Mattie tends to bring disaster wherever she goes. Unlike the 1969 version, LaBoeuf seems to survive in this one, though he looks a bit bloody and woozy in his last shot. But, notably, almost everyone else in the wilderness Mattie meets, except Rooster, suffers or winds up dead.

Hathaway and Roberts’ kept the story‘s darkness, but gave it a sunnier frame. The Coens, by the end, flood the screen with a sense of loss, anguish, irrecoverable times. They remind us, as they did in Blood Simple and Fargo (two films that point right ahead to the mood and style True Grit) that, no matter how much we laugh at anecdotes of grisliness and death, someone must always pay the price.


Kim Darby as the Mattie of the 1969 True Grit made a grand gesture at the end of that movie, offering to share her family gravesite with Rooster. She was a handsome young woman obviously headed for a happy life. The Mattie we last see in the Coen’s Grit (played at 40 by Elizabeth Marvel) is a one-armed spinster with a sour, censorial expression who appreciates Cole Younger’s politeness at the Wild West Show, but calls his partner “trash.”

There is no happiness on the Coen Mattie’s 40-year-old face, and one feels there may never be again. He happiness maybe was all used up in the wilderness, killed with the venom of the snakebite, as Rooster ruthlessly flogged her pony to death to save her. Like Holly Hunter’s stern cop in love with a cheerful sociopath (Nicolas Cage), in Raising Arizona, Mattie is attracted to what she can’t have, to what can kill her. (Why didn’t she try to find and help Rooster — after paying him — for all those decades?) The puritan business lass and the whiskey-loving lawman and shootist. A comedy? Class warfare?

And Rooster? Bridges’ Rooster that is. He got his man. (He always does.) He has his booze, his yarns, his neglected glory as man of the west, and Quantrill‘s (maybe) last raider, his revolver and his twenty plus notches. Not an Oscar this time — even though I swear, True Grit is better than The Social Network, the movie that will get it. (So are Another Year and Inception and Toy Story 3 and The Illusionist and even the New York Times-damned Shutter Island. But Social Network has younger stars, more critics in its corner.) Oscars? Not this time. But then, nothing’s too good for the Man who shot Liberty Valance.

1969, the year of Hathaway’s and Duke‘s True Grit was also the year of the smash hit Newman-Redford Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and of that great, dark, blood-spilling masterpiece The Wild Bunch. Clint Eastwood was in his Western prime (between Hang ‘Em High and Two Mules for Sister Sara), and it was just a year after Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West. Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller were just a year or two away.

John Ford and Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh and Budd Boetticher were all still alive: Hawks even had a new Western all set to follow True Grit. A Western with Duke: Rio Lobo. (The day after the Oscars, when Wayne showed up on the Rio Lobo set, everybody, including Hawks and the horses, were wearing eye patches.)

The Western seemed eternal, ever renewed, forever young. True, Dennis Hopper was making a movie — an anti-establishment follow-up to Easy Rider, it was hoped — called The Last Western. He tried to cast Hathaway in his movie, but the director demurred and Sammy Fuller played the part. (I hear Dennis was prepared to go to 200 takes with Hathaway.)

So now, once again, as True Grit comes out, we get a bunch of reviews, praising the Coens, or saying it’s a departure, and maybe lamenting the fact that they don’t make Westerns any more — although some awfully good ones have come out recently including the Jesse James-Bob Ford movie with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. At least True Grit got almost all good reviews. More than Liberty Valance got.

By the way, there‘s a haunting tune which threads all though the Coen’s True Grit, played in a spare tinkly piano version, and then bursts forth under the credits, as a full-blown gospel song, sung with honeyed clarity by Iris DeMent. It’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms“ — and , if I were a betting man, I’d wager the Coens remembered it from the same movie we all do. It‘s the hymn evil preacher man Robert Mitchum kept singing in The Night of the Hunter, the movie (remember?) about two innocent young children, lost in a world of horrors and murder. Hearing the hymn again in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, you sense irony, and dark comedy, and also a sheer love of the brave sentiment that drives that childlike, pure faith along, against all odds, in a world of killers, a world of death. “Leaning, leaning…Safe and secure from all alarms…Leaning, leaning…Leaning on the everlasting arms…” God’s arms? Rooster’s? Preacher Harry’s? Take your pick.

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One Response to “MW on Movies: True Grit”

  1. Richard Shavelson says:

    Being Jewish (and not in the movie business), Christmas Eve allows my wife and me each year an almost private viewing for whatever movie we select. Last night it was True Grit. I read the book in college in-between rock concerts, parties and occassional classes. Therefore the orgional books undelying strong message, the Wayne movie, and the group “The New Raiders of the Purple Sage” are all blended together.

    I read your column this morning to fill in the pieces. You did a great job answering my questions and while there is no way of knowing if you are right about your conclusions, I (at least) want to agree with you.



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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon