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True Grit (Movie Review)

True Grit

The Coen brother’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name (True Grit) is a deep and dark revenge story about a young girl named Mattie Ross (Elizabeth Marvel) who embarks on an uncompromising pursuit after her father’s killer – the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).

However, True Grit is also the story of two diametrically opposed lawmen who set out to hunt Chaney down in the Indian Territory – the hard drinking “one eyed fat man” US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the incessant talker of refined upbringing Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). Unlike the original True Grit movie, which earned John Wayne his only Oscar, the Coen brothers breezed past a lot of the underlying contention between Cogburn and LeBoeuf. So it’s worth revisiting to better understand their relationship within the narrative.

LeBoeuf and Cogburn had fought in the American Civil War for the Confederate Army. LeBoeuf’s war was that waged by the West Point trained officers who waged it with what they saw as honour, integrity and valour. Cogburn’s war was served under the guerrilla fighter William Quantrill who gained a Confederate commission as captain of partisan rangers. Quantrill, dead at 27 from a gunshot wound to the chest in an ambush, was reviled by the West Point officers for the barbarity of taking no prisoners, the murder of women and children and his propensity for hit-and-run raids. Quantrill’s men were responsible for the infamous Lawrence Massacre of 1863.

Notable real life outlaws who rode under Quantrill were Jesse James, Frank James, Cole Younger and Jim Younger. These were the breed of men that would have fought beside Rooster Cogburn only a decade earlier.

That explains the uneasy tension between the two men hunting Tom Chaney through the Indian Territory of the 1870s. The Civil War was recent history and a time of lawlessness as parts of America readjusted to the Union victory. The further contention between the men was LeBoeuf’s incessant talking and high handed attitude as a Texas Ranger. Even when LeBoeuf nearly bit his tongue off he found it impossible to hold silence.

Some found Matt Damon’s interpretation of LeBoeuf as abrasive but when consideration is given to the level of maintenance the Coen brothers gave to authentic language the portrayal of LeBoeuf made sense. LeBoeuf was a man of the defeated South, he was a man of the West Point mentality, he was proud of being a Texas Ranger and what that stood for, and he was a man who probably wasn’t bright for our time in history but was comparatively bright in his own. Much of our uneasiness comes from the difficulty we have listening to LeBoeuf in the stilted language of the 1870s. He’s the veritable man who could talk underwater (thus the tongue… Matt Damon held his tongue doubled back with a rubber band for the second part of the film to generate the affected speech).

There are many layers to True Grit that are going to make this a modern classic of the genre. True Grit may at first pass appear a shallow western of the John Wayne and Glenn Campbell era, but don’t be fooled by its appreciation of roots to the original. The question is whether John Wayne or Jeff Bridges make the iconic Rooster Cogburn come to life? That’s a hard one you’ll have to go to the movie to figure out for yourself.

I watched the original True Grit on the cusp between primary and high school… John Wayne is impregnated into my cultural roots with long-standing reverence. However, this was Jeff Bridges at the peak of his career playing a man he truely understood. It boils down to the line “Fill your hand you sonofabitch.” Made all the more potent because John Wayne, at the time, had lung cancer. Somehow, when I imagine that scene where Cogburn rides both guns blazing with reins in his mouth, I see John Wayne and Jeff Bridges super-imposed.

If you don’t like the western genre then you might find this movie a little laborious in places… but give it a go. Awesome performances, great back-story to research… and a little bit about the many forms of justice – Texas Ranger justice by the book… Rooster Cogburn justice via Quantrill’s influence… or Mattie’s pure revenge on the man who killed her father for two gold pieces. Loved it… I’d give it four stars.

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Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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