#34 — True Grit (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2010)
The primacy of language in the work of Joel and Ethan Coen makes invites speculation about the meaning of the outside authors they choose to associated themselves with through their work. Excepting very broad swipes of prior stories as inspiration — such as Raymond Chandler’s detective novels living spiritually in The Big Lebowski or Homer’s The Odyssey providing ever so loose source material for O Brother, Where Art Thou? — the Coens spent the first long passage of their shared career as filmmakers tapping out original screenplays. They were eleven films and twenty years deep before their first true adaptation, a remake of the dark British comedy The Ladykillers. Since then, they’ve adapted two novels, and the fidelity of the resulting films is where the Coens reveal their inner sense of who they are and what they create. The first film was the masterful No Country for Old Men, which placed them in the company of the grim, formidable Cormac McCarthy. Just a few years later, the Coens looked to another novelist, less famous but perhaps even more of a kindred: Charles Portis.
When the Coen brothers’ version of Portis’s True Grit was released, the immediate association most observers had was with the 1969 film adaptation that famously won John Wayne an acting Oscar. The Coens don’t go out their way to dissuade comparisons with the earlier film, even added a couple visual nods to the feature directed by Henry Hathaway. But they’re not in thrall to the preceding Hollywood product either. Their prevailing appreciation for the Portis novel couldn’t be clearer than if they held up ink-stained fingers in front of the camera as the action plays out. Portis wrote with a properly focused curtness and a gift for language that was somehow at once ornate and bracingly direct. The resemblance to the Coens is such that his words are practically an ancestral photo to every script from Blood Simple on, and the siblings show a clear pride and reverence in bringing Portis’s story to the screen. The filmmakers’ rapscallion playfulness is largely replaced by a commitment to craft. Other films by the Coens might be better, but few are so elegant.
The Coens airtight screenplay and laudable care in directing are the primary characteristics that elevate True Grit among most other modern Westerns. But it is the totality of their craft, and their immense talent for picking collaborators, that further provide the air of classic about the film. The cinematography by Roger Deakins and the the score by Carter Burwell, both regular partners with the Coens, are equally extraordinary, and the directors couldn’t haven chosen better when casting their leads. Erstwhile El Duderino Jeff Bridges brings the right gruff gravity to hired gun Rooster Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfeld makes Mattie Ross, the revenge-seeking teen who hires him, into a paragon of determination and stubborn intelligence. Like the novelist they drew from, the Coens knew the right way to assemble their pieces. Words can fill a dictionary, or they can be strung together into marvelous sentences and paragraphs, for pages upon pages. They same is true for the grammar of film, and the Coens know better than most how to make grand components into an even better whole.