True Grit is based on a 1969 film with John Wayne, which was itself based on a 1968 novel. All three feature a quest to find the man who killed 14 year old Maddie Ross’ father, with Maddie helped by Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn and La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger. Now, I can’t speak for the novel, because I haven’t read it. However, the Coen Brothers’ film is so much of an improvement over the original that it suggests the difference between the Jonas Brothers and the Beatles. It’s all pop music, but they are NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, doing the same thing.
The script is fantastic. Joel and Ethan have more than found a way to walk the narrative tightrope between retelling a well-known story and putting their own spin on things. Their version is much more organic than Marguerite Roberts’ original. I was amazed at how much more fluid the film’s pacing is. Most of the same moments, conversations, and setpieces take place, but they’re allowed to do so within a narrative rhythm, where certain bits in the original stuck out in awkward places. Joel and Ethan’s seamless script takes the same moments and, through changing the timing or setting, infuses the story with an energy and vitality that just wasn’t there the first time around.
It’s because of the structural tightening that True Grit really takes flight. Not surprisingly, the Coens bring out a lot of the story's inherent humor. I found myself cracking up all throughout the film, and not always when everyone else in the theater was too. I’m ok with that. What’s more, their version of the post-Civil War South feels so much more real than anything that the original accomplished. Where 1969’s take was squeaky clean and refined, 2010 is still refined, but much, much grimier, leaner, and meaner.
Jeff Bridges’ performance. . . oh, wow. He’s five times the actor John Wayne ever was. (yes, I said it) While Wayne's Cogburn was a charming character because of his self-consciousness as a performer, Bridges effortlessly goes further than that. He brings a remarkable sense of depth to the character. Instead of only being an old man who wants to do things his way and usually ends up shooting anyone who tries to stop him, he’s a gruff guy who can barely be understood a lot of the time. He drinks too much and sometimes says things that he doesn’t mean. Mostly, he’s got a very simple way of looking at the world. After making Maddie climb a tall tree to identify and cut down a dead man hanging there, he turns him over and says, “I do not know this man.” And it’s hilarious.
You know why? It’s because it’s true. He doesn’t know the guy.
Like The Big Lebowski and the Dude who only wanted his rug back because it tied the room together, Cogburn needed to find out if the man was who they were looking for, was too old/heavy to climb the tree, made Maddie do it, and it just wasn’t the right guy. Case closed. That’s where a lot of the Coen Brothers’ humor comes from. Their jokes aren’t anything revolutionary, and they’re not even that complicated. They just have the guts/balls/chutzpah/common sense to say things out loud that are completely obvious.
The direction and editing are wonderful. By serving as “Roderick Jaynes,” their own editor, Joel and Ethan are able to alternately shoot and select exactly the shots they want. Sometimes, when I’m watching a film, I want to stretch out my hands, make them into a rectangular window, and try to capture what I’m seeing. I think of those shots as shots that were born rather than created. True Grit has many born moments, and they're beautiful.
There’s another aspect of the Coens’ craft that often goes unlooked. They have the souls of poets. No matter what type of film they’re making, there’s an element of what Herzog refers to as a “deeper truth, an ecstasy of truth.” Whether it’s the evocative simplicity of the ending of No Country For Old Men, the Dude and Walter’s hug on the cliff in The Big Lebowski, or the rumination on the meaning of life in the police car in Fargo, they’re quietly at work creating some of the most affecting moments in cinema today. It’s not enough for Joel and Ethan to just tell a story. They find a way to leave the viewer with something that connects that story to daily life. Here, in a story that’s been told for years, there’s a sense that more is at hand than simple retribution for a crime committed. Time passes. Children are forced to grow up too soon. Men must admit that they are wrong. People grow old. “Time has a way of moving past us.” I am grateful, so grateful, for these moments.
As True Grit neared its conclusion, there’s a sequence where two characters on horseback race against time, and you know what, reader? I got a little bit emotional. 2010’s been such a lackluster year for cinema that it was like giving a hungry man a meal. On the inside, I was crying out, “THIS is how you make a movie. This is how you do it.” I’m reminded of something Emily Dickinson said once. Someone asked her what poetry was and she said that she didn’t know how to describe it, but when she read something and felt like the top of her head was being blown off, then that was poetry. She knew it when she found it. That’s what True Grit is. I may get tongue-tied if you ask me exactly what makes a great film, but I know how it feels when I find it.
People often look fondly at older films and say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” They’re right.
Here, Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t make one like folks used to. They made one better.
4 ½ stars (out of 5)