Movie recommendation: True Grit

April 30, 2011 • 12:09 pm

I never saw the 1969 version of this movie—the one starting John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn—nor have I read the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, but I greatly enjoyed last year’s version by the Coen brothers. which I saw last night.

It won’t be too much of a spoiler to give the plot outline.  A 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (played by the wonderful Hailee Steinfeld), heads out west to avenge the murder of her father by the nefarious Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  With money obtained from the sale of her late father’s horses, she hires a frowzy and drunken U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt the murderer down.  Mattie refuses to let Rooster go out alone, and doggedly rides with him into Indian territory, joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s pursuing the same man for a murder in Texas.  They have a lot of “adventures”, or rather encounters, for the movie presents a panoply of oddballs and misfits, as one expects from a Coen movie.  The final encounter, and the movie’s denouement, is heartbreaking: perhaps the best part of the film.

What made this film for me, beside the wonderfully assured presence of Steinfeld, was the dialogue, which is at once stilted and mesmerizing. I suppose the Coens are here imagining a kind of  formalism that might have infected speech in the 1870s.  Whatever it is, it’s at first startling but then becomes immensely appealing to the ear. Here’s Mattie arguing with LeBoeuf about where Chaney should be brought to justice.  (You can find the whole script here).

When Chaney is taken he is coming
back to Fort Smith to hang. I am
not having him go to Texas to hang
for shooting some senator.
Haw-haw! It is not important where
he hangs, is it?
It is to me. Is it to you?
It means a great deal of money to
me. It’s been many months’ work.
I’m sorry that you are paid
piecework not on wages, and that
you have been eluded the winter
long by a halfwit. Marshal Cogburn
and I are fine.
(LeBoeuf stands.)
You give out very little sugar with
your pronouncements. While I sat
there watching you I gave some
thought to stealing a kiss, though
you are very young and sick and
unattractive to boot, but now I
have a mind to give you five or six
good licks with my belt.
(Mattie rolls away onto her side.)
One would be as unpleasant as the
other. If you wet your comb, it
might tame that cowlick.

The cinematography is wonderful, Damen and Brolin do a creditable job, and Bridges—well, who knows how much of that crusty “character” is really just himself—but does it matter?  And Steinfeld is worth the price of admission.  True Grit was nominated for ten Academy Awards: Wikipedia lists Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. (Unfortunately, the film didn’t nab a single one.)

This is not a great movie, but it’s a very, very good one, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

Steinfeld and Bridges

51 thoughts on “Movie recommendation: True Grit

  1. I like Jeff Bridges as an actor, but I expected the Coen brothers to do a more original movie. If you get a chance watch the original.

    1. I saw both versions and whilst John Wayne acted the part, Jeff Bridges became Rooster. Unusual story for the strong characterization of a woman in those times.

        1. Its great to hear of the ‘Little House’ series, however, I wonder how well known it was to the average reader? And certainly, stories now require the film version for general exhibition. I’m Australian, and don’t know if the series was recommended in schools in the US.

        2. I read pretty much the entire Little House series to each of my kids as bedtime stories as they grew up. Would not be surprised if they continue the tradition should they ever have kids themselves.

  2. I, too, quite enjoyed this adaptation with a great amount of immensitude, HOWVER, Kink raised a serious question?

    Where was the cat?

    The original film with John Wayne not only had a cat in it, the cat was a star!

    The only mention of cat in Coen’s film is this small reference:

    MATTIE I am the person for it. Mama was
    never any good at sums and she can hardly spell cat. I intend to see papa’s killer hanged.

    I asked Kink if he had further comment, but he turned, walked off, tail up and said, “Speak to the eye.”

  3. I couldn’t take the annoying religious theme song that ran through the whole movie. I like John Wayne’s version better. It’s really the exact same movie.

  4. Guys… this wasn’t a remake of the John Wayne movie as much as a new take from the book (although I think the eye-patch did survive from the first movie).

    As for the language, it’s my understanding (not having read the book either), that that much of that style comes from the book.

    1. Oh, and come on, Mattie is 14 in the movie, but in the first movie she’s played by a 21 year old. It was shot in very different landscape: the fall in Colorado, versus the book’s winter in Arkansas and Oklahoma (the new movie wasn’t filmed there either, but the landscape and season at least matched). I thought the winter backdrop added a layer of beauty that the original movie simply can’t match.

      1. Having visited both, I must object that western Arkansas & adjacent Oklahoma do not have any particular similarity in landscape. Trying to pass Ridgway, CO, off as Fort Smith, AR, is a source of some amusement in the 1969 version, but the Coen brothers don’t do a whole lot better on locational accuracy…

      2. Having visited both, I must object that western Arkansas & adjacent Oklahoma do not have any particular similarity in landscape to northern New Mexico, where the Coen brothers filmed. Trying to pass Ridgway, CO, off as Fort Smith, AR, is a source of some amusement in the 1969 version, but the Coen brothers don’t do a whole lot better on locational accuracy…

  5. Very good film, yes, though. to my ear, much of the dialogue comes across in the film as arch and over-written. The Victorian archness comes straight from the Portis novel, where it goes down a lot more easily. In the novel, Mattie is narrating the story intimately (and in retrospect, of course), so the arch dialogue–hers in particular–can feel to the reader like the older Mattie’s ironic embellishment. In the film, the voice-over frame sets the story, but the drama is unmediated narratively–so the mollifying element of comedic irony is lost altogether. Bridges manages to carry it well; Steinfeld, not so much, I think. She is saddled with too many undeliverable lines, and while her nimble articulation almost saves her in its charm, it doesn’t quite save the prolix script. Still, like all the Coen pictures, this is not at all a realistic drama. (Anyone who gets drilled by a .45 at ten yards isn’t going to be walking around complaining of a “broken rib,” nor is anyone who gets shot with a carbine through the shoulder going to be able to ride a horse and somehow recover on his own.)

    Wordy dialogue is usually more effective and convincing in prose fiction than on the screen. In the novel, the reader supplies her own pauses and inflection; she hears the dialogue in her head. In film, that job is the actor’s, and when the lines are over-written, it’s just too hard a sell–as it is in this picture. Still, Mattie’s glib and daunting locution amounts to the only weapon she has in a dangerous world–and it’s winning on that level, at least.

    1. The other issue with this is also the accuracy of the style of speech. I have yet to see either of the films (I am planning on seeing this version soon), and I have not read the book, but Mark Liberman at Language Log offered a decently thorough going over of why the dialogue, while stylistic and interesting, is basically not accurate to speech of the times ( It doesn’t necessarily bother me, and it certainly doesn’t ruin the film, I just worry that people come away from something like this with the idea that this is what late 19th century speech sounded like.

      1. Right, Chris–in the novel, Mattie’s out-size personality lends the narrative voice an over-the-top-ness that persuades the reader to give her (as a reminiscing main character) a lot of license for embellishment in retrospect. The reader has the pleasurable sense that she’s coloring the story for effect, so on the page it doesn’t feel nearly as literal as it does on the screen.

      2. Why does that worry you? Does it matter what most people think about 1870s English? The same people could come home from the theater and watch HBO’s Deadwood and get a totally different—yet equally stylized—version of 1870s English.

        Frankly, I’d be more worried about the inaccurate depiction of gunshots than of 1870s English.

        1. Oh, it’s just one of those things. It annoys me too. It’s just silly, the idea that the 19th century was so formal that no one used contractions. A look at the first page of Little Women would dispel that notion.

      3. It’s not meant to be realistic. The Coen brothers play with ‘genre’ films quite often; there’s a similar wonderfully arch dialogue throughout ‘Miller’s Crossing,’ a fantastic ‘gangster’ film.

        In fact, are any of their films ‘realistic’?

  6. Enjoyed it very much!
    I do have to profess a weakness for Jeff Bridges, but even with that in mind I really think he played Rooster Cogburn d*** well. And Mattie was very good.
    But the one I really liked was Josh Brolin. His genuine surprise as he sees Mattie in the river. Priceless.
    (And I don’t even like half of the Coen Brothers’ films.)

      1. Just checked IMDB. Josh Brolins father, James Brolin, was born Bruderlin, not Brolin. So more German than Swedish.

  7. As suggested above by Don, the style of the language comes directly out of the book and is one of its charms.

    Whether it is historically accurate, I don’t know.

    But since we don’t know how they really spoke then, the Flying Spaghetti Monster must exist.

      1. (Because they both self-consciously wrote realistic everyday dialogue. They both self-consciously reproduced slang and other contemporary linguistic habits. They both deliberately avoided cleaning it up.)

  8. My view of the new version was colored by having grown up with the John Wayne version. I *love* the old version but also felt the new version was very good, too. I like all the actors, too, especially Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. I’ve never seen an actor give quite as menacing a look as Bridges did during the scene where, standing beneath the man hanging high in the tree, Cogburn and Mattie awaited the mysterious bear-headed rider. For me, however, nothing matches the Duke’s performance in the original movie. The showdown in the valley with Ned Pepper’s gang always gives me goosebumps no matter how many times I’ve seen it. The way he delivers the line: “I aim kill you in one minute. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?” with such matter-of-fact confidence is always thrilling. Finally, the scenery in the original is nothing short of breathtaking, shot in northwestern Colorado and the Sierra Nevadas, fealty to the book or no.

  9. This new version is taken almost word-for-word from the novel; well done – but fell short of my expectations…

  10. I love mythic Westerns such as this. One of my
    favourites is Ford’s Wiki: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    Sergio Leone, the director of such classic Westerns as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and one of the directors Ford influenced the most, said it was his favorite John Ford film because “it was the only film where he (Ford) learned about something called pessimism.”

  11. Much has been made upthread re: the dialect employed in the film– archaic, stilted, etc. I will confess that I have neither read the original text, watched the earlier version starring John Wayne, not the most recent rendition. I CAN, however, commend to you the interview by Teri Gross (NPR, Fresh Air) with the Coen brothers:

    I still will not venture out to the local google-plex to see the film, but I am somewhat inclined to do a rental. Call me a geek, but this interview was perhaps better than any viewing experience I can expect to have in any alternative context. Give it a listen.

    1. Campbell may not meet your standard as an actor, but for sure he got the accent down since he is an Arkansas native. (The year following “True Grit” he made another film with Kim Darby, “Norwood.) Plus, at the time he was a hot pop vocal property with a string of Jim Webb-written hits, and in my estimation the musical theme of the original movie is most credible:

      One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face
      As soon as you’ve won
      your fight to get justice done

      Someday little girl you’ll wonder what life’s about
      What others have known –
      few battles are won alone

      So, you’ll look around to find
      Someone who’s kind,
      someone who is fearless like you
      The pain of it
      will ease a bit
      When you find a man with true grit

      One day you will rise
      and you won’t believe your eyes
      You’ll wake up and see
      A world that is fine and free

      Though summer seems far away
      You’ll find the sun one day.

      I thoroughly agree with Dr. Coyne’s evaluation of the Coen movie’s ending . . . Little Blackie, wasn’t that the horse’s name? I think the Coen movie very well drives home the essene of perserverance, the “grit” of “True Grit.”

      And whatever the (il)legitimacy of the style of the dialogue, it nevertheless employs some wonderful, quality metaphors and other literary devices and biblical allusions and circumlocutions of yesteryear, a sonic delight. I’m a bit reminded of my grandparents, who would speak traces of their grandparents ways of speaking.

      Who here knows what is meant by describing someone as “boring the big augur,” or something “as tight as Dick’s hatband”?

  12. “Bridges—well, who knows how much of that crusty “character” is really just himself—but does it matter?”

    I find this is the way he is usually. He seems to have a great ability to “be” the character.

  13. Let’s not forget the grand QED at the end of the article…

    “And they will never succeed in snuffing out that faith in God that all human beings naturally possess; a faith that is ingrained in our minds, hearts and souls forever. Why?

    “Because aside from all the logical arguments for God’s existence and all the miracles and all the truths contained in Scripture, one simple fact remains: 2,000 years ago, on that first, quiet Easter Sunday morning, Christ did rise.”

    QED, beetches!

    Nevermind that it’s in the author’s best interest that it is true. I wonder what the odds are that the author of a book called The Invisible World-Understanding Angels, Demons, and the Spiritual Realities that Surround Us would be a phony huckster. Lol, probably not very good odds. /snark

          1. Corn “dodger.” Now that’s a word. Anyone care to speculate on why the word makes sense?

            1. From a former poet laureate of the State of Tennessee:

              “When I die bury me deep,

              Put a jar of molasses at my feet,

              Put a pone of corn in each hand,

              I’ll sop my way to The Promised Land.”

              He also had one that sentimentally reflected on the “touchstone” memories of his home. One was the red and white checkerboard table cloth.

              The clincher line:

              “Nag me so I’ll feel at home.”

  14. The original was the only John Wayne movie I liked (not that I’ve seen half of his movies). He won the Oscar for it. I assumed at the time that the movie was written for him, as he seemed to be playing himself (as usual), but it fit well with the story. Kim Darby I thought quite good also; Glen Campbell almost a disaster, without much acting ability.

    After seeing the remake, I finally got the book – which is the right order for me. If I had read the book first I would not have enjoyed either movie as much, because there would have been no surprises – a lot of the dialog is word for word from the book, such as the horse trading negotiations and the trial scene.

    The remake included more of the trial, which was good, but left out the cat, as mentioned by a previous commenter, which was bad. The first had a contrived happy ending, with JW riding off on a new tall horse, and Matty with two arms. The ending of the remake follows the text much more closely, although it also sweetens it just a bit.

    Jeff Bridges did a real acting job, inventing a new character; still I preferred John Wayne playing himself, although I can hardly believe I’m saying that. I still suspect Charles Portis may have had him in mind when he wrote the book.

    The bit about the Matty’s pistol shot breaking a rib is from the book, but I don’t know what caliber the gun was, only that it was an old cap-and-ball gun, not a cartridge pistol. It had been clumsily reloaded with some ancient ammunition by a drunken Rooster after he shot a rat with it – a good scene from the original which was not in the remake.

    1. Mattie’s murdered father’s revolver, which she takes possession of at the boarding house, is a black-powder, cap-and-ball Colt Dragoon with a 7 1/2 inch barrel in .44 caliber. As Rooster tells Mattie, “That piece will do the job. If you can find a high stump to rest it on with a wall behind you while you take aim and shoot.”

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