Stephen Hunter is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former chief film critic of the Washington Post. His most recent collection of film criticism is Now Playing at the Valencia. We invited Steve to write something (anything) for us on True Grit, the new Coen Brothers film which opened around the country yesterday.
Based on Charles Portis’s novel, the film is a remake of the beloved 1969 movie directed by Henry Hathaway for which John Wayne won his only Academy Award. Steve graciously accepted our invitation to write something for us about the film and turned in a luminous review:
The Coen Brothers’ replicant of True Grit is close enough to its genre origins to refresh some of the great pleasures of the western: men with horses, men with guns, men with really cool hats, and men with faces. In fact the faces are the proper landscape of the picture, giant granite edifices carved with fissures and aroyos, flecked with wild vegetable growth, dusty and dangerous.
The most demonic of these belongs to Jeff Bridges, who plays the crazed and canny U.S. Marshal and honcho mankiller Rooster Cogburn behind a scraggly, patched, bearded, weathered and salted mug that looks like it could have been the outer surface of a Spartan shield. When he cranks up that one eye into a squint which is crushed flat by the weight of a collapsed brow and a tensed cheek, he doesn’t look adorable at all, certainly not avuncular and mock-grandiose or ironic like the great John Wayne back in 1969, he just looks mean and when he’s not kicking Indian children for the dang fun of it, squabbling over money, drunk or otherwise occupied, his grit is more than true, it’s absolute. It’s like he sees the world over the blade of a front sight.
You can’t quite call the film “naturalistic,” or claim that it’s set in something called The Real West. The dialogue is too Victorian-ornate (a product of Charles Portis’s original gem of a novella) but it is set in a world where the 1969 Henry Hathaway version doesn’t exist, derived on a straight line from the Portis text. Any who attend hoping to bathe in the wake of the Duke’s showy passage–he won his only Oscar for the role– will be disappointed, for about 10 seconds.
No, Bridges isn’t John Wayne, nor is Hallee Steinfeld, who plays the willful Mattie Ross, Kim Darby. She’s an authentic 14-year-old, callow and unformed, so the sexual tension of the original is replaced by something more Oedipal: she’s the daughter he never had and doesn’t know he missed, he’s the father shorn of sentimental idealism and softness, living only for a dad’s duty and in the end, his keenest is to protect his daughter. A signal moment: he rides a horse to death to save her, though she loves the animal and may hate him for it. He’s fine with being hated if that’s the price of his duty.
The plot, as many will remember, is primitive, goosed along now and then by a helpful coincidence. It is propelled by the conceit that her will is so strong that she bullies these brutish mankillers into submission and in the end, they’re happier for yielding to her executive instincts. She withers them with wit and shrivels them with her own killer stare.
The strongwilled Mattie hires the dissolute Rooster to track down the man who killed her father, a venture that takes them into the dark interior of what was then Indian Territory and is now Okalahoma. They range west from Ft. Smith, Arkansas, accompanied by a dandy of a Texas Ranger improbably named LeBoef (Matt Damon) in search of the evil Chaney (Josh Brolin) who has thrown in with a gang of cutthroats and retardates led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). Each of these fellows has a face that looks like a leather cushion dragged behind a pickup over 40 miles of bad road, so that the movie also has a tone of random grotesqueness for fans of bad orthodonture and nostrils the size of volcanoes.
But more importantly, True Grit is played straight, without wink or irony. The Coens impose classical discipline upon themselves. Why, it’s as if these fellows never saw their own post-modernist films and are working in a year before the age dawned when all filmmakers have been to film school and have read all the back issues of Cahiers du Cinema.
I yearn to see an unrated version on DVD, so that Portis’s considerable bloodshed will be liberated from the politeness of the PG-13 rating, but the Coens do at least as well as Hathaway did in staging action sequences and capturing the dynamic abruptness of the gun fight. It appears that Bridges is a real horseman as he is seen to ride hard at his opponents on a real mount, reins in his teeth, and a Navy Colt in each hand. The Duke, if memory serves, was clearly riding a saddle secured to the flatbed of a pickup truck in those scenes 40-odd years ago.
Perhaps you have to skew way old to enjoy the film as much as I did; but for me, it put in me a hunger for popcorn and those grenade-like Milk Dud things that exploded in a spew of industrial grade caramel and enameled your molars together for weeks.