True Grit (U.S., 2010) directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen, 110 minutes
I can’t explain my reticence to see this film aside from the fact that the western genre is not my favorite. Jeff Bridges plays the usual gravelly-voiced misanthrope with a heart of gold as Rooster Cogburn, a bounty hunter. Matt Damon, a favorite of mine, also feels boringly familiar as the comic relief in the person of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who aids both Mattie and Cogburn. The script is quite good - hewing much closer to the original eponymously named book by Charles Portis than the 1969 film apparently. All the Oscar nominations seem fairly accorded - directing, art direction, sound editing, adapted screenplay and nods to Steinfeld's acting. True enough...
And I especially love Hailee Steinfeld, the female lead, who bears more than a passing resemblance to my teenage daughter J with those long beautiful chocolate brown braids, large expressive eyes and flashes of temper.
The plot is, by now, well known for those how have seen the original film from 1969 and heard the enormous hype surrounding this new film. Steinfeld completely steals the show as Mattie Ross, the 14 year old, who is out to avenge her sheriff father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney (an appropriately repellent Josh Brolin who is almost unrecognizable under his makeup and matted hair), her father’s hired hand. I won't review the whole plot, take a look here if you need to refresh your memory about the plot.
The film is definitely a re-iteration of the anti-heroic western that surfaced in the 1960s and gained popularity (see for reference Cat Ballou (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Little Big Man (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). The new genre of Western films were darker, grittier in tone and less romantic in their view of the old West. They challenged authority and the heroic myth of the white hat = good /black hat = evil Westerns with its sharp contrasts of good vs. evil.
Other elements of the revisionist westerns are:
A flawed and sometimes unpleasant hero – uncouth, dirty, sometimes cruel and foul-mouthed. Here Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) represents a more down to earth antidote to the antiseptic cowboy heroes of the first half of the 20th century cinema. Cogburn is filthy, unkempt, disorderly and likes his liquor – living in a pigsty at the back of a Chinese grocery. He dislikes children and pointedly throws two “brats” off a porch when he sees that they are mistreating a horse. He can play dirty as well as a bounty hunter too (he is accused of ambushing men and shooting them in the back). At one point, he leaves behind the obstinate Mattie whom he has reluctantly promised can accompany him in his search for Chaney.
A non-traditional hero/heroine – in this case a 14 year old very articulate, extremely determined girl. Mattie sleeps in a funeral home with dead bodies nearby to save the money she needs to hire a bounty hunter to hunt down her father's killer. She haggles with a horse trader to get her dead father's money back and threatens to sic her lawyer on him. She hires Cogburn, refuses to be left behind in the pursuit, in desperation crosses a river on horseback when the river ferry refuses to carry her across so that she not be separated from the two men in pursuit of her prey, shoots down her father’s murderer and ultimately and violently dispatches him in the end. She survives a near fatal fall and lives to tell the tale at the end.
A non-conventional ending – not necessarily happy for any concerned. As my daughter said at the end of this film – nothing good happens to anyone in the film. Even Matty must suffer a tragic loss after seeing that the villain of the piece is killed by her own hands. She misses an opportunity to see Cogburn again after 25 yeas of separation by a few days. She never sees Texas Ranger LaBoeuf again after their adventure.
A new awareness of the treatment of native Indians. This is not dwelt on in any significant way except in the opening scene – three men are to be hanged and the first two are given a chance to defend themselves before hanging to justify their actions. The third is a native Indian and even before he can utter his first word, a black hood is slipped over his head and the three men are hung. It's cruel joke ala Coen style but it strikes a bitter note of truth quickly and effectively.
Authority figures are often figures of fun. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who ultimately becomes a friend and ally to Mattie’s cause, is initially seen as a buffoon and a figure of fun. The horse trader that Mattie bargains with is a pompous fool, easily duped by Mattie. Other adults try to manipulate or exploit Mattie but do so at their own peril. Our sympathy never shifts from Mattie and her goal.
"Happy" endings are mixed at best. True, Mattie gets her man. The good guys prevail. The bad guys get their just deserts in particularly violent and creative ways. But Mattie loses an arm in the process and ends up in her own words “an old maid” at the end of the film. Cogburn concludes his career in the kind of demeaning cowboys-and-Indians traveling show towards the end of his life that made the rounds near the turn of the 19th c. and early 20th c. in the west. LaBoeuf disappears from Mattie’s life and is never heard from again even though there is a slight sort of sexual (and slightly disturbing) tension between the two. We (at least I) harbored a hope that they would reunite when Mattie reached a suitable age but no...
Then again…let me have another think about this film. That’s exactly my kind of tale: bittersweet.