Near the beginning of TRUE GRIT, there’s a scene that I think nicely encapsulates what the Coen brothers do in their movies. The scene’s worth seeing even if, maybe especially if, you already know what you think about the work of Joel and Ethan Coen. It’s set in a dusty town in the Old West where three men are about to be hanged. Each has a turn to say his peace.
The first takes the chance to renounce his life of drinking. In the brief glimpse we have of him, he is defined as a type specific to that time and place. For one, he conflates alcohol and moral corruption, an antiquated notion that’s a little alien to today’s attitudes. But more salient, there’s his phrasing, the sort of stuff you only hear anymore when people are making a joke about sounding old-timey; he mentions a “trifling quarrel” and asks that the crowd not judge his family and “compel them to go into low company.” He starts sobbing pitifully, but as an audience in the 21st century, we’re at arm’s length from him and the era he represents.
Normally in a film, when a man cries just before being hanged, the emotional aspiration is pathos, but not here, and that’s one of the real marks of a Coen Bros. movie: a willingness to portray people in all their bizarre particularity, even in bleak moments where other filmmakers would appeal to the universal and generic. More generally, even when the Coens’ characters are engaged in more quotidian pursuits—like stealing a baby to raise as one’s own or digging a tunnel into a casino vault—they’re almost always affected and impossible to read as general types, as they’re too unusual in their details for us to relate to. Everybody loves FARGO’s Marge Gunderson, but her accent and manner don’t let the average viewer identify strongly with her. That, I submit, is at least part of the Coen formula.
Man No. 2 is a stark contrast with No. 1. Stolid and sober in his final moments, he says he knows worse men in the audience, but seems resigned to his fate. No. 2 could be seen to represent a very different strand in the Coen filmography, an interest in contemplating the darkest corners of humanity, and in an unblinking fashion. Despite the detachment from characters we might feel, I don’t think it was possible for one to step out of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN with a light heart (though a puzzled heart, maybe).
The third man is Native American. He begins, “Before I’m hanged, I’d like to say…“, but, then, with perfect comic timing, a bag is pulled over his head. It’s a bleak joke, literal gallows humor that’s even harsher because we know it’s just the last of a series of indignities native people have suffered. Taken as black humor, though, the joke works, and so this is the third hallmark of a Coen film: the gag so broad that it’s out of place in anything but an outright comedy.
The Coens’ movies are an almost willfully confusing conglomeration of these three tonal registers, plus some more thrown in for measure–the ludicrous, the profane, the dour, and the earnest all rub elbows in a way that seems calculated to confound the viewer looking for only one of those. It’s beyond me what alchemy could make this combination work, but work it often does.
In any event, there’s much more in TRUE GRIT to recommend it than the Coen touch alone. There is, for example, the film’s way of undermining the genre of the Western. For instance, we are introduced to the lawman, Rooster Cogburn, not in a gunfight that shows how clever and tough he is, but in court. And a staid court it is, more reminiscent of a procedural than a verbal gunfight.
In another nice twist, the primary villain, Tom Chaney, is hidden for the first large chunk of the film. We hear of him by reputation, but never see him, perhaps because it would have been that way at the time the movie was set, when photographic images were so much rarer. As 21st century movies go, however, it feels like we ought to see him far earlier than we do. When we do finally meet him, instead of an imposing figure representing implacable death, we meet a loser. His hair is so dirty it stands on end, and he whines as he bridles under the thumb of the gang leader. Tom Cheney is a putz, and making a putz the central antagonist in a movie this serious is a brilliant move.
Finally, as a film that defies patterns and expectations, the film’s most important point may be that its story, which in outline would seem to be a coming-of-age tale, feels nothing like one. Mattie Ross is introduced and quickly, we find her to be more canny and confident than many adults, out-trading a man some four times her age in one of the earliest scenes. On its face, this looks like the Coens shooting themselves in the feet. Where is there for her character to go if Mattie is already a fully realized person at the beginning of the movie? As much as I like innovation in storytelling, I still love a good character arc, and there’s not an easy one to find here.
But there is one, subtle though it may be. We eventually find that the titular “true grit” is not merely self-assurance and cunning, which Mattie already has. Rather, if there’s something that differentiates Rooster Cogburn from Mattie (in the larger metaphorical sense), it’s his lived experience, with all the mistakes, wounded pride, and suffering that implies. She already knows who she is, but that is not the same as paying the price for that knowledge, and even having some pride in having paid for it. Moreover, if you track the bodily integrity of the characters through the film, you find at least hints of this payment, in the mutilation of each protagonist’s body. Cogburn is, from the beginning, minus an eye, and easily the one sunk deepest in moral compromise; Jeff Bridges is stupendous at portraying an aging lion that looks like he’s always just on the verge of regretting something for the first time in his life.
Matt Damon’s LaBeouf, for his part, pays a modest corporeal price for joining up with Cogburn, in scars and impeded speech. It’s Mattie, however, who will truly learn “true grit” and in the process, literally lose something of herself. The title of the movie, which first comes across as a catchy phrase, comes to be the true subject, as the film finally implies that you only get true grit by paying dearly for it. Whatever else the Coens do, they’ve made a movie that says that, and that’s a lot to say.