True Grit and the Coen Brothers

Just a week after I wrote about probably the Coen brothers film with the most mystery and depth in A Serious Man, I watched the extremely straightforward Coen brothers version of True Grit.  Despite their deviation from their usual eccentricity, I loved the film.  The Coen brothers like Tarantino have a knack for propelling a film with a screenplay’s dialogue, rather than the film’s action.  The humorous and compelling discussion makes this film.  With fantastic performances from the main three actors, I was completely swept up in the journey.  This short, straightforward film seems to have found a wide appeal, and the huge box office revenue is the evidence.  By the way… was anyone else disappointed that ‘LaBoeuf’ was not spelled ‘LaBeef?’  Just me?

After thinking about the film not fitting in with the rest of the Coen brothers films, I decided there must be a deeper layer of meaning and mystery within the film.  I considered statements that True Grit makes about justice.  At the beginning of the film, Mattie explains that Chaney was not pursued after murdering her father.  Not only was there an absence of justice, but court hearings and public hangings are shown to be a source of entertainment.  Mattie has an obvious lack of respect for the judicial system as she opts not for the best marshal, but the one with the most grit.  As his court testimony exemplifies, Cogburn is a man who doesn’t fit into the system that he serves.  Later in the film LaBoeuf even ‘spills the banks of English’ to compare malum in se and malum prohibitem, or what is inherently wrong versus what is illegal.  This critique of justice had me satisfied until I realized that this is probably all subtext directly derived from the book.  With almost any other writer/director, I would have been content with the great film, but having seen the many nuanced Coen brothers films I was looking for a deeper meaning somewhere.  They left their auteur signature on the film, but for some reason I insisted on looking for subtext which seemed to be absent.  I decided to look into this while reading as little as possible, so I watched the original John Wayne True Grit.

For a film which was titled True Grit, the original film was surprisingly absent of grit.  In the recent adaptation the Coen brothers apparently were more faithful to the book when they created a darker and more violent film.  The setting is a great example of this disparity.  The 1969 version the setting was Colorado in the summertime (with a backdrop of the beautiful Rocky Mountains), and in the 2010 version the setting was Oklahoma in the winter.  The less chipper remake depicted a cruel and lonely world in which it was too cold to bury dead men.  Showing preference to the original source material the Coen brothers also returned Mattie to the role of the narrator and main character.  Allowing Mattie to drive the plot and letting the circumstances surround her creates a more effective film.  But I cannot fault the 1969 version of the film for making the choices they did.  If I had to choose between a legendary John Wayne and an awful performance from Kim Darby, I also would have made Cogburn the focal point of the film.  When watching the 2010 version of True Grit I found it interesting when I started to figure out that it wasn’t just Cogburn who had grit, it was also Mattie.  The original film made this suggestion more overtly as Cogburn verbally notices similarities between himself and Mattie.  This is an example of the ability of the Coen brothers to cut out what was unnecessary, allowing them to create a film that was 18 minutes shorter and much more engaging.

Although this comparison exemplifies some things that the Coen brothers did well, it doesn’t help me find a deeper meaning in the film.  As far as I can ascertain, the Coen brothers only added a couple scenes that were not in the book.  The first being when Mattie and Cogburn came across the man who was lynched, and secondly when they meet the man in the bear fur.  What do these scenes add to the film as a whole?  Not much.  These interactions could be seen as signifiers that in her pursuit of vengeance, Mattie is no longer in control and is in an uncertain and strange new world.  This message does fall in line with the climax of the film which depicts that there are consequences of vengeance (be it physical or mental).  But this is vague and not the kind of eye opening subtext I was looking for.  This is a straightforward film without the layers of meaning and mystery which are present throughout the rest of their filmography.  I find it strange that the Coen brothers seemingly resisted any urges to add themes or messages to the film.  With a PG-13 rating and a less ‘bizarre’ product the Coen brothers may have been striving to satisfy a larger audience.  This doesn’t mean that the Coen brothers did not make this film their own.  The remake featured a type of dark humor, a variety of strange characters, and a linguistic flare which are unique to the Coen brothers.  These aspects are all absent in the original and vastly improve the film.

I’m not accusing the Coen brothers of selling out.  This is a fantastic film which I was completely able to enjoy, even if it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  If they keep making films of this nature it would not be a waste of their talent.  The film’s witty dialogue will make this a great movie to re-watch as you finally figure out everything that Jeff Bridges says.  Last summer I thought I saw a straightforward film in Inception which I could recommend to anyone.  It turns out I was wrong, it was too confusing for some.  I may be making the same mistake twice, but as long as they know it is not an action film, I feel that I could recommend True Grit to anyone.

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