Monday, December 27, 2010

True Grit: A True Western

It's perhaps inevitable that the Cohen brothers would finally make a Western - and re-make a Western classic, at that. Their movies - from Blood Simple to Barton Fink, Fargo to The Great Lebowski, No Country for Old Men to A Serious Man, are about flat American landscapes, moral wilderness, the constant threat of violence, and the relentlessness of moral policemen and a-moral fuck-ups. With True Grit they seemingly have boiled down their entire oeuvre into a simple story, one that transplants these elements into their natural habitat: the outstanding, vast beauty of the American west.

True Grit (originally brought to the screen with John Wayne in 1969) tells the story of Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Elizabeth Marvel), a fourteen year old girl whose father was murdered by a good-for-nothing hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie comes to town seeking to avenge her father's death and capture Chaney. To do so, she first must raise the money, then hire a gunslinger, the inestimable and slightly over-the-hill Rooster Cogburn (in this case, Jeff Bridges plays Wayne's Cogburn role, with barely understandable phlegmatic mumbling, cursing, and fumbling). Mattie is a force of nature - she doesn't take no for an answer - and, in case you may have thought otherwise, it is she who is the "True Grit" of the west. She brings both a sense of rectitude and a sense of purpose to a wild west town that clearly has neither (the opening scenes - of a hanging and a trial - show what a lousy, wayward place this is. The hanged men are summarily dispatched in a bunch no matter their last words, and the jury hardly cares to bother with the details of the defense).

Cogburn, it turns out, still has some rectitude left in his bones, even if he's now utterly lacking in purpose (Mattie finds him drunk in the back of a Chinese pantry). Into the setup of this pretty pair walks Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), all flamboyant purpose (he's after Chaney for another murder in Texas) and little rectitude (he's a bit of a dweeb, if they had such a word in the old west, and willing to give Mattie a spanking for her lip). The three of them make a natural family, and off they go, chasing after Chaney through the wild west.

Along the way, they find a Cohen-brothers style journey filled with characters, assassins, thieves, and snakes (literally). A body that Mattie and Cogburn encounter along the way is subjected to three questions to determine its value: is it someone they know (no), does he have anything on him (no), are his teeth worth anything to anyone (yes). That seemingly boils down the morality here to its absolute essence.

Naturally, the three of them have their arguments and breakups along the way, leading for some nice set-ups, ambushes, and chances for redemption. And when all looks lost, and Chaney looks like he's gotten clean away, Chaney and his men come upon Mattie, and they're all back in the game.

Mattie has a way of interrogating both the lawmen and the criminals with a matter-of-fact frankness, and makes her assessments based not so much on which side of the law they find themselves, but whether they seem to know their own mind. Those who do, pass her evaluation, and she theirs. This seems to be the assessment of a Cohen bother's movie boiled down to the most basic: knowing your own mind is really the only thing that will save you in this world.

As she goes through the wild west, she seems to bring this sense of rectitude and purpose with her, so that by the end of the film, both Le Boeuf and Cogburn - neigh, all of the west - has moved into a new civilized era. As I watched the end of this movie, it struck me that this is the opposite of the Cohen's other great film, No Country For Old Men, which is about the inevitability of death. That film featured Anton Chigurh as a kind of dark angel, summing up the characters he encounters and bringing to them the cold calculus of non-existence as he travels through a society that's in decay. Mattie Ross is the opposite of this, and though she's as inexorable as Chigurh, she's a force of life, an angel of purpose and poise bringing meaning to a landscape that's been heretofore devoid of feeling.

As Cogburn carries Ross towards the last scene of the movie (literally carries her in his arms), she looks up into the night sky, barely conscious, and appreciates the vast beauty of the heavens in a way that she's not done since the movie began...a scene that may be the closest the Cohens have ever gotten to a suggestion of God, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call it.  This may not be quite as interesting as the evil they've explored in movies like No Country, or Fargo. But it's probably the purest form of a Western that's been made in forty years.

True Grit, it seems, is the Cohen Brothers expressing their true faith, and they do so lovingly, with humor and grace, as the best artists do.

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