True Grit: The Coen Brothers’ Great Adaptation

By sticking to the Charles Portis book, the Coen Brothers have a box office hit. Allen Barra argues it’s their best film ever—and, a Western for the ages.

12.25.10 6:29 PM ET

True Grit is the Coen Brothers’ best, in large part because it isn’t the best Coen Brothers film. Or to say it another way, it’s their least characteristic film. Audiences seem to agree—the movie opened Wednesday to strong box office, and will likely be the brothers’ most popular movie ever. Gloriously absent are the stylistic quirks and film school indulgences that have plagued their work over the years, at least in the minds of those of us who aren’t uncritical fans. (Read: those of us who don’t explode into peals of laughter at every frame of The Big Lebowski.)

For the first time, the Coens have sublimated their own instincts to the service of the material, perhaps because for the first time they have selected material from an artist superior to themselves. (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, which, to me, was a pretentious, overblown genre piece, and was written for the movies, doesn’t count.)

What’s surprising is how few reviewers of the film are familiar with Charles Portis’ great novel and seem to know it only as the basis of the amiable, but sloppily made, 1969 John Wayne vehicle. First serialized 43 years ago, like so many great American novels were, in the Saturday Evening Post True Grit is a monologue in which an elderly Arkansas woman named Mattie Ross relates her adventures as a 14 year old in pursuit of her father’s killer, a no-good named Tom Chaney, into the wild territory of the Indian Nation.

Mattie is headstrong but sensible; she knows her limits and understands that to accomplish her task she must have the assistance of stout officers. The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

“The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive ... Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.”

“Where,” Mattie wants to know, “can I find this Rooster?”

One of the best things about True Grit is that all of it is written in that vernacular, the speech of people who, while they may have been illiterate, were raised on readings of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, an English practically devoid of contractions and Latinate words. Portis, the reclusive author of a handful of novels (including Norwood, Masters of Atlantis, Gringoes, and Dog of the South, all of which have devoted cult followings), and a former journalist, supposedly learned the rhythms and cadences of late-19th century Southern speech working on newspaper stories in rural northwest Arkansas.

Here are some passages from the novel that made it onto the screen:

“I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world as it is is vexing enough.”

“A saucy line will not get you far with me.”

“You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements.”

“You do not varnish your opinions.”

It’s the language that David Milch, with an overload of barroom pyrotechnics, could only approximate in Deadwood–and even without the curse words, I’d take Mattie Ross in a verbal showdown with Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen.

Several critics have compared Mattie to Huck Finn, but I think in her righteous determination she has much more in common with Captain Ahab–and if Mattie had been chasing that white whale, he’d have been hanging from somebody’s yardarm after just 200 pages. In a remarkable performance, Hailee Steinfeld seems to be inhabiting the character of Mattie from the inside; she’s a real life 14-year-old acting like a 20-year-old, exactly the opposite of Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the Wayne film.

Even without the curse words, I’d take Mattie Ross in a verbal showdown with Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen.

I’m surprised to read that The New Yorker’s David Denby thinks this material to be “thin.” It is ingeniously simple, and precisely from such simplicity is the power of most great Westerns drawn. ( Shane could be summed up as a “gunfighter takes the side of homesteaders against ranchers.” Red River as “ Mutiny on the Bounty on the range.” The Searchers as, well, “Men searching for kidnapped girl in a blighted landscape.”)

The Coens don’t strain for comic effect, but draw heavily upon the dark and often grisly comic power of the source. As Roy Blount, Jr. wrote years ago, “Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” Portis’ humor is the kind that you laugh at, then stop and say to yourself, “My God, I shouldn’t be laughing at that,” then laugh at yourself for having hesitated to laugh.

Finally, though, the Coens’ film is great for the same reasons the novel is great– for the same reasons that John Ford’s and Anthony Mann’s and Howard Hawks’ best Westerns are great. Its sense of the heroic isn’t undercut by irony.

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon as the puffed-up Texas Ranger LaBoeuf are drawn from elements of frontier archetypes, but they are allowed their dignity. Unlike John Wayne and Glen Campbell, who first played them, Bridges and Damon are nuanced actors capable of leading us beyond the caricature. Cogburn and LaBoeuf don’t begin the story as heroes, but that’s what they become–we come to see them through Mattie’s eyes.

In the novel, when Rooster makes his final charge against Chaney, Lucky Ned Pepper, and the rest of the outlaws, Mattie tells us, “It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshal whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much.” That Barry Pepper was cast as Lucky Ned Pepper must have tickled the Coens endlessly.)

Even though her words are not in the script, the Coens let us see what Mattie saw and we share her awe. And the film offers us a visual pleasure that even Portis’ prose doesn’t: It gives Bridges’ Rooster a desperate, near-Homeric ride, driving a horse to death carrying the wounded Mattie to safety, their figures silhouetted at the top of a ridge against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Unlike the 1969 version, the Coens have been smart enough to preserve the elegiac ending, and I’m spoiling it here, so be warned. Mattie, some 20 years later, goes searching for Rooster in a Wild West show hosted by Cole Younger and Frank James and finds he has died a few days earlier. “We had some lively times,” is all Cole Younger (played by Don Pirl) can offer her.

Like Jesse James in the old ballad, this True Grit has a head, a heart, and a brain. We should not be cautious in placing it among the great films of the year and the great Westerns of all time.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.