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The Coen Brothers' True Grit: Putting John Wayne to Shame

Critics need to chill about the Coens' lack of proximity to the original film, and see the new version for the great work it is.

True Gritis a big hit for the Coen brothers, giving them their best opening weekend ever. Their growing popularity cues two inevitable reactions:

1) the claim that they’re improving as filmmakers, finally learning how to do it right, “it” being the tired sentimental humanism that goes over so big with so many dopes; and

2) the claim that they’ve sold out, abandoned their dazzling formalism, lost their satirical mojo, and degenerated into sinful conformity.

Of these two positions the first is by far the dumber and more common; I just had it solemnly presented to me by a bearded academic at a Christmas party, which is a lesson to me to stay in lockdown over the holidays.


The second position represents a more legitimate worry when watching True Grit: it looks plain and straightforward, it’s PG rated, it’s emphasizing the children’s-adventure aspects of the material—it seems, God help us, to have been made into safe viewing for kids.

But this film is just a variation on business as usual for the Coens. It’s very much in keeping with the Coen policy of turning out great, rich, bloodsome stuff in a casual or even stealthy way, without much pomp or clamor. Partly because of this greatness-by-stealth-policy, a lot of people are only just recently catching on to the Coens. Right around No Country for Old Men time, critics sat up from their long naps, shook their blocky heads and said, in the cadences of The Far Side’s cavemen, “Hey! Look what Coens do! Them make movies good from books!”

See, the Coens started adapting books around 2007, and that’a really helped a lot of critics appreciate them at long last, only twenty-some years after they started making great films. Because most critics have high-culture hang-ups that should’ve died out sixty years ago but persist among a sad retrograde sliver of the population, they get all hot for Literature, so film adaptations of works by pre-approved authors like Cormac McCarthy have made them reconsider the Coens. True Grit,based on the stark, grim, and deeply funny 1968 novel by Charles Portis, is generally getting high praise. (A 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, in the parlance of our time.) The praise itself is wrongheaded in all particulars, but still.

For example, David Edelstein of NPR starts off his review as fatheadedly as possible:

Joel and Ethan Coen are probably tired of the question, but you can’t not ask it: Why make a film of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit when it already was a movie — a good one — with a definitive, Oscar-winning performance by John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn?

You see? Idiocy right off the bat. The 1969 movie version of True Grit was not a good movie, and there was nothing definitive about John Wayne’s performance of the “Rooster” Cogburn character. The best you can say about the 1969 version was that John Wayne seemed to be enjoying himself hamming it up with the eyepatch and all, and I suppose getting an Oscar for it was a nice treat for him before he died of the Big C.

Otherwise it was about as moldy and clueless an entertainment as was ever made; even when new it seemed to have been designed for doddering denizens of old folks’ homes, something to run on the lounge TV and cast a vague, comforting, nostalgic glow for the terminally checked-out. The appalling Kim Darby as Mattie Ross was an insult to any intelligence above an earthworm’s, and on top of that there was Glen Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf—yeah, that’s right, the “Wichita Lineman” singer taking a shot at acting, sorta like Ricky Nelson did alongside John Wayne in Rio Bravo back in the dear old days of yore.

The whole thing was a forgettable mess, and I wouldn’t have brought it up at all if most of the critics hadn’t harped on it in reviewing the Coens’ True Grit. All of a sudden everybody’s an expert on “the original” movie, set on comparing John Wayne’s Cogburn to Jeff Bridges’. A lot of feeble wordplay about “the Duke versus the Dude” has broken out, reminding me that most critics are probably senior citizens themselves by now, just about ready to retire and commence drooling in front of the TV in the lounge.

Never mind. It doesn’t really matter.

The important thing is, the Coens’ True Gritis very funny, and very serious, at the same time. This is a specialty of theirs, though it’s sailed clean over the heads of legions of filmgoing morons for ages. People have trouble with complexity: if the Coens are funny, they can’t also be serious, and if they can’t be serious, they’re mere postmodern pranksters making fun of everything, and ought to be squelched somehow.

In author Charles Portis, the Coens have met their match and then some, because much of Portis’ humor is so hard and dry and unpandering, it’s like rock strata embedded in harsh cliffs and if you miss it, that’s tough. The Coens actually make it seem much showier; some lines play so raucously they send you flying back to the book to see if they could really be in there. And they are.

Take the courtroom scene where fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross first spies Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, and decides he has the “true grit” to hunt down her father’s killer. Cogburn is defending himself against the cross-examining attorney’s suggestion that his high-casualty gusto when capturing criminals is open to criticism. The Coens’ cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots his slouching bulk in a halo of pale smoky light cast through a dirty window, which is about as apt an image of rough justice personified as can be achieved in film.

In the book, Mattie records the cross-examination of Cogburn by quoting directly from the court transcript, for she is much addicted to documentation:

MR. GOUDY: …I believe you testified that you backed away from Aaron Wharton.

MR. COGBURN: That is right.

MR. GOUDY: You were backing away?

MR. COGBURN: Yes sir. He had that ax raised.

MR. GOUDY: Which direction were you going?

MR. COGBURN: I always go backwards when I am backing up.

MR. GOUDY: I appreciate the humor of that remark.

If the Coens aren’t totally faithful to that bone-dry exchange, they are damn close, and yet in the film it plays big, vivid, and funny, with gravel-voiced, greasy-haired Cogburn savoring his own wit (foolishly, because the lawyer is about to trip him up) and how well his punch-line goes over with the boys in the gallery, and Mattie watching him with growing exultation in having found the ideal Tom Chaney-hunter. Same events, same dialogue, remarkably different impact.

This is not to say that the Coens are strictly faithful to the letter, or the spirit, of Portis, even if such a thing were possible. They’re not. This will cause a good deal of pain to those truly dedicated to Portis—just ask John Dolan, who writhed in agony at the many infidelities. Dolan’s got some good objections to the changes: villains not mean and scary enough; most of the important business with the Indians who nominally run the territory is cut; LaBoeuf keeps abandoning the little posse in a huff and then returning cheesily in the nick of time; and there’s no sense that Mattie’s starched, no-contractions narration is censoring the other characters’ casually profane language and disgusting behavior.

Plus, what’s the deal with the guy in the bear suit? That scene’s not in the book, and it doesn’t work at all, either.

On the other hand, most people who’ve read the book won’t remember it in anything like Dolan-detail. In fact, I’ve come across long critical essays about how marvelously faithful the film is to the book, and how much the Coens have benefitted from relying on Portis’ superior artistry.

Regardless of how faithful or unfaithful they are to Portis, the question is, what exactly are the Coens doing with the material? Being the Coens, they’ve naturally stressed the humor, dug it out of the cliff face and shoved it forward. They’ve made such a coxcomb out of Matt Damon’s overconfident Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced by everyone as LaBeef) that he’s right up to the edge of cartoonish, and Damon clearly relishes it, clanking around in his showy spurs and buckskins and curled mustache, vying absurdly with Bridges’ Cogburn for Mattie’s admiration.

And Bridges wrings the juice out of every aspect of Cogburn, formidable and seedy in equal measure. His scene target-shooting at empty whiskey flasks and “corn-dodgers” while flailing drunk is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

By laying such emphasis on humor the Coens have risked weakening the vital context of the post-Civil War border states and territories where human perfidy flourishes and harsh consequences are guaranteed one way or another. They rely on the power of stark imagery to keep present the sense of hard ground, cold nights, bad food, tired bones, prevalent danger.

The Coens have also opted to accentuate what must be more apparent anyway, as we watch the film, than it could possibly be in the book: we’re looking at a fourteen-year-old girl in tight braids who is evidently, as well as legally, still a child, though she’s achieved an almost freakish command of horse-trading and legalese. As we read the book, the sense of Mattie as an early-adolescent girl gets blurred by her own adult voice narrating the tale as well as her acceptance into remarkably rough adult company. No such thing is possible in the film, if you preserve that specific age in casting the actress playing Mattie; there she is, a fourteen-year-old girl, played by fourteen-year old (Hailee Steinfeld), surrounded by tough customers. When such a girl is filmed fording a fast river on horseback, her head and the pony’s both struggling to keep above water, it has a heart-gripping impact the book can’t have, and that changes things.

The Coens embrace the material as a kind of children’s adventure tale, with an American Gothic somberness not typical of that subgenre. They’ve drawn inspiration from another source than Portis’ novel: a weird old 1955 film called Night of the Hunter, which is the only American Gothic children’s adventure-slash-fairy tale ever committed to film, as far as I know.

The Coens take the Night of the Hunter theme song, the old evangelical hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and weave it through the True Grit in instrumental form before finally breaking out vocally at the end, using Iris DeMent’s wailing roots-music version. This series of music cues indicates the structure of affect the Coens are going for, which is an almost shocking burst of emotion at the finale, after long restraint. This is not Portis’ way. The Coens repeat similar incidents in different tones, first comical and light, then later, dark and heavy. LaBeef bids Mattie “Ay-dios!” twice, in opposing registers, and we’re meant to feel the accumulated weight that’s the difference between the two. Cogburn saves a mule from casual tormenters armed with sticks in a humorous scene early on, then later rides a horse to its awful death, jabbing it in the haunch with a knife.

What begins comically, with overbearingly competent Mattie’s hiring adult help that she can’t get any other way (“my mother is indecisive and hampered by grief”), accrues poignancy as peril increases and adults fail. The repeated abandonments by LaBeef, and the Cogburn feet-of-clay scene—nowhere present in the Portis novel—seem to owe more to the Night of the Hunter structure than to Portis. Night of the Hunter is about imperiled children in a world of adults mired in various states of sin and frailty who are helpless to defend them against actual evil, and the one boy who knows he’s hopelessly overmatched and sets out to on a desperate journey to get adult help for himself and his sister.

Evil in Night of the Hunter is chiefly represented by the depraved killer Harry Powell (played by Robert Mitchum, a character based on an actual Depression-era widow-murderer Harry Powers) who fancies himself a preacher in a sadistic religion “God and I worked out betwixt ourselves.” He duels morally, musically, and the usual way, with guns, against Lillian Gish as the embattled representative of stringent Protestant and maternal virtue. During an armed stand-off they sing at each other, melody versus harmony, their rival versions of the old “Leaning” hymn, and it’s every bit as crazy as it sounds, but eerie and moving as well.

The Coens’ evocation of that much more plaintive film is held in check until the harsh consequences begin to accumulate toward the end of True Grit. Then they let it loose aurally and visually, and the parallel between the films gets clearer: during Cogburn’s climactic night ride to save Mattie, the landscape takes a hallucinatory beauty of black silhouettes against starry horizons that’s modeled on the children’s dreamlike escape downriver in Night of the Hunter.

Mattie’s final pronouncement in True Grit remains spare: “Life just gets away from us.” In that way it’s unlike Night of the Hunter, which ends with Lillian Gish making a long speech to the camera about how children are God’s creatures because they “abide.” (That’s the inspiration for the phrase “the Dude abides” in The Big Lebowski. The Coens draw on Night of the Hunter pretty regularly.) But both endings are intended to wreck you. The persistent crock about how the Coens are cold filmmakers was always stupid, but now it’s outright insane. If anything, they’re so determined to have an annihilating emotional impact in their recent films—No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, and now True Grit—they’re in danger of overbalancing and producing something really grotesque if they’re not careful.

Obviously, you don’t need to know anything about Night of the Hunter in order to feel the impact of its influence in True Grit. And most people who enjoy True Gritdon’t find it all that emotional, either. They say it’s a “pretty good Western” and crazy stuff like that that doesn’t mean anything.

I’ve come to realize that’s because the Coen brothers make films for me, more or less exclusively. The Coens don’t know this, of course. I just happen to be the perfect audience for their films, and though other people stumble into theaters and watch their stuff and even like some of it, they like it without really appreciating it to its fullest extent. It’s all perfectly calibrated for ME, see, and that leaves the rest of you kind of out in the cold, Coen-wise. Harsh, but that’s how it is.

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