It’s a little late to review the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit. I’ll merely mention some elements that have stayed with me, long after seeing the film, which is nominated for this year’s Oscar for Best Picture.
First, what is “grit,” this invaluable trait that 14 year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks in an effort to track down and bring to justice the man who killed her father? A lazy writer by nature, I simply turned to the link on Wikipedia that defines this word, originally from the Old English. “Grit” means courage, toughness and perseverance, but the first definition offered says, “Collection of hard small materials, such as dirt, ground stone, debris from sandblasting or other such grinding, swarf from metalworking.” By definition, grit is debris. The US Marshall whom Mattie hires to track her father’s killer is the human debris left over from a life of drink and violence - Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges.
There is something beautiful about the relationship the two share. On the one hand, he will not be told what to do. Rooster has killed too many people in the line of duty (a fact that has brought even the lawyers of the unruly West to question his ethics) to care what a young girl thinks of his habits. On the other hand, Mattie is simply too tough and assertive to be intimidated by a man whose voice sounds like grinding, rusted metal. She shames, threatens and frightens a businessman in the town into handing over whatever funds she needs in order to apprehend the fugitive. Yet she names the horse she buys “Blackie,” much as a little girl would. Rooster recognizes that his young employer is a kindred spirit of true grit, but she is also a child who needs to be kept from the kind of horrors that have filled his life.
Matt Damon gives a great performance in the film that went ignored by the Academy. Damon plays LaBoeuf, a dedicated Texas Ranger who seeks the same man as Mattie and Rooster, but for a different crime. In smooth camel coat, spurs, and a fine moustache, he is the embodiment of everything Rooster is not; his fanciness in attire reflects the unique credo of a state lawman as opposed to the uncouth, tarnished Federal man, Rooster. There lingers under the surface between the two men a basic disdain left over from the Civil War. LaBoeuf resents the presence of Mattie, but when the two part near the film’s end, one senses that LaBoeuf has very nearly fallen in love.
There are many touches that mark this film as typical of the Coen Brothers’ style. A corpse hangs high in the trees at one point, and though I’m not sure if that detail is in Portis’ novel, one does find it in Cormac McCarthy’s work. As is often the case in their films, so many crucial events are seen from a distance that makes these events seem all the more suspenseful. And while the violence of American films seems choreographed for the purposes of drama, the Coens show in True Grit, as they do in films like No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Burn After Reading, that fatal violence is often the product of sad coincidence and stupid, split-second decisions.
But no one who has seen the film has not been struck by the appearance of the character of Dr. Forrester, the Bear Man (Ed Corbin). At first, sensing that someone is tracking them, Mattie and Rooster stand ready and waiting a long time in the cold snow. However, what greets their long wait is a bear on a horse, or rather a lonesome dentist wearing a bear head for a hat. Unblinking, he offers them dental work on the spot, which they politely decline. He is peaceful but utterly strange, staring into the camera, transfixed by the experience of his own solitude.
The Coens are often criticized for painting their main characters with very broad strokes, but their tiny, peripheral characters always have an eccentric vitality that leaves the audience wanting to know more about their mystery. The Bear Man is as strange as the mystery of the West, as strange as settlers’ desires to first travel into its vast loneliness. Westerns I vaguely recall from my childhood valued the self-reliant fortitude of pioneers, but True Grit suggests that cooperation and trust, though often elusive, might have been valued much more on the way west.