THE “TRUTHINESS” OF TRUE GRIT (2010)
Despite all the good and glowing reviews of the Coen Brothers latest film, I did not like True Grit. I was bored.
So what bothered me?
Why did I leave feeling unsatisfied and irritated?
But a few words before I diagnose. First, let me disclose my intellectual failings: I do not read fiction; I read only non-fiction. Therefore, I have never read the Charles Portis book. Second, Westerns died and were decently buried in the Sixties. The only good westerns after the Fifties were the “Spaghetti Westerns” and other Clint Eastwood films, especially the truly great Unforgiven. Third, the Coen Brothers have already done their western. It was called No Country for Old Men and it was as great as Unforgiven, and, yes, I actually read the Cormac McCarthy book. Which brings me to True Grit…
For any director, writer, or actor, the “Western” is a minefield of dangers. In the Twenty-first century, we are too well-educated to accept the Cold War myth of the West as the symbol of America, a nation founded on individual enterprise and, of course, “true grit.” The real facts have been thoroughly revealed since John Wayne and Kim Darby made the clean and shiny film of 1969. The West was a place where misfits washed up on the plains, a site where sociopaths and post-war drifters, whores and prostitutes, and opportunists created an out-of-control society we called “wild.”
The period of True Grit is the opening years of the Wild West when Arkansas was still the frontier, a time when the West was suddenly up for grabs and the place where the East sent its worst citizens and its sorriest losers. We can measure the depths of the desperation and perversity of the West by the wild and immoral scramble for “free land” and the willingness of the American government, brutalized by four years of war, to countenance genocide of the Native Americans. The West can no longer be mythologized. There is no reason to feel sentimental about one of the most shameful periods in American history, much less to celebrate its passing in an “elegic” tone, to use one of the words written by many critics in relation to this film.
The best path of a Twenty-first Century Western is to humanize the inhabitants and to tell the truth about how the West was really “won.” The reluctance to deal with the West as it really was only continues to hide a story that is truly compelling—how people discarded from the East built an entirely new political and social system that rose out of the ashes of crimes of theft and killing and inhumanity. To be fair, truth was not the purpose of the Portis novel, and the Coen Brothers seem to have had modest goals: to give a “straight-up” account of the original novel. The book is a more elegant and formal retelling of turn of the century pulp fiction. I suspect that in this day and age such a re-telling would be difficult to recapture, even in the inspired hands of the Coens.
How could the tone of the past be recreated? From the first time we see the town in the opening scenes—an Arkansas frontier town—the film looks false. The buildings look like Hollywood sets on a back lot in the Fifties. Now, this too-clean too-fake appearance may be intentional on the part of the Coens, and, if so, I applaud their intentions. Too pristine, neat and tidy, the town of True Grit has the look and the feel of a simulacra—a copy of a copy of a copy, a free-floating signifier of a “reality” that was never real. Simulacra work best as stilled images and are extremely difficult to pull off in a film. In his early days, Quentin Tarentino was the master at activating simulacra, especially in Reservoir Dogs, one of the best film noir movies of the neo-noir period. That said, True Grit is, at its heart, as the Coen Brothers indicated on Charlie Rose, a “young adult” novel. True Grit is not a road movie, not a quest movie, not a journey into adulthood movie, not a redemption movie. It is much more simple: it is about a young girl who leaves home, a remarkable event in the 1870s. But the film turns into a male-oriented ham fest with a plucky young girl as spectator to the antics of lost and broken men in simulacra of a “western.”
If the Coen Brothers were aiming for simulacra, then the acting let them down. Once the plot leaves the fake town and moves out into the hardscrabble frontier of Choctaw Country, the look becomes more authentic and bleak. The original Portis plot is fine but the characters are difficult to translate from the printed page to live action. The actors are trapped—or trapped themselves—into characterizations, which lead them to hamming it up. Each character is an archetype of the Old West, but what emerges is a stereotype—-the plucky little girl of the west, the old man who has become a professional killer, a Buffalo Bill Bounty Hunter, the sociopathic gunslinger and outlaw, and assorted colorful characters that come and go with little effect. It’s a dangerous mix of the familiar, and Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin put on their Wild West costumes, climb on their horses, and go over the top.
The “Rooster Cogburn” character is unfortunately played for comic effect by a self-indulgent Jeff Bridges. While Bridges is a much finer actor than John Wayne, he comes across like “The Dude” who has wandered into a Western movie. Brolin, also a fine actor, turns Tom Chaney into a moronic killer, hardly worthy of a quest, much less relentless pursuit. One wonders how such a mouth breather—mere debris—could have eluded the bounty hunter, Le Boeuf, aka “Le Beef.” Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon are the only actors in this film whose performances are centered and grounded and should be given credit for holding the storyline together. I believe that Brolin and Bridges should have followed the lead of Steinfeld and Damon and played their roles straight. Instead of being so self-consciously “in a movie,” the bounty hunter and the outlaw could have been authentic, played like a pair of damaged men leading deranged lives. They were two sides of the same coin; the same trained killer split into two paths. One man found his humanity and the other lost his.
It remains to be seen if I am right about this film—that the audience will be bored. I will be watching the numbers on the attendance, instead of reading the reviews. That said, I would be surprised if Jeff Bridges does not get nominated for an Academy Award, like John Wayne.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger