When the Coen brothers were pegged as remaking John Wayne’s True Grit, based upon Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, the natural assumption was that it would be a film as dark as their No Country for Old Men. And, as it happens, the film is being promoted as a bloody and brooding one. Instead, True Grit is a light, all too light, comedic western.
The story follows Mattie Ross’s (Hailee Steinfeld) adventure of bringing her father’s killer to justice. To this end, she employs the most remorseless of men, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Joining them is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger hunting Chaney and who needs Cogburn’s local knowledge.
The comedy of True Grit is mostly based in an inversion of the heaviness that many Westerns have. Unlike the canonical Unforgiven, for instance, True Grit is almost completely devoid of any serious themes and is all but completely devoid of emotional weightiness. The exception here is one fine symbolic event: after killing her first man, Mattie immediately falls into a black hole where she is attacked by a rattlesnake. We gather beforehand that she is light, too light for a horse to feel she’s even riding him, and too insubstantial for a snake to feel her heat. After her kill, she falls into darkness and is anointed into the realm of violence by a symbol representative of no less than the devil himself.
Otherwise, we are inundated by the trivial. Around the campfire they don’t discuss death, cold-bloodedness, or, in some permutation, the harrowing of the world. Rather, LaBoeuf chats emptily on the unusual size of the fire; elsewhere, Rooster blathers mindlessly on the history of his wives; and Mattie’s early dialogue is overly concerned with penny pinching. In short, the characters are profoundly banal, and this is what makes them so funny.
As amusing as the speech may be in the villains, Rooster, and LaBoeuf, it is intolerable in Mattie whose speech is truly professorial and simply too outlandish for a 14 year-old girl. And, whatever the loyalty to Portis’s novel, Mattie’s constant avoidance of contractions is as jarring as it is irritating. This reaches its worst when she’s bitten by the snake in the hole and shouts out, “I am bit!” which immediately dampens the effectiveness of the scene (who can imagine someone speaking so formally and unnaturally at such a time?).
Mattie is in fact the weak spot of the whole screenplay. She is, first of all, an unbelievable character. From her speech and her complete unflinching assertiveness in the face of grizzled killers to her knowledge of law terms in Latin – and this at 14 in a frontier town – Mattie is ridiculous.
Second, there are no stakes for Mattie. Despite starting the hunt for Chaney, Mattie shows no emotional need for justice or revenge. All she does over her father’s casket is discuss money. One simply can’t imagine this character as being motivated to seek justice for a father for whom she demonstrates absolutely no feeling. Rooster and LaBoeuf are likewise without any serious need to risk their lives. So, we have a poisonous, pleasure-killing question lurking – why in the world would someone fight for something they neither wanted nor needed?
But, for a while, I can forget that in a string of chuckles.