True Grit: Determination in Everlasting Arms

Even though this movie came out roughly around 5 years ago, I thought that I would like to show you; the one who is reading this. This is my movie critic that I did for my Mass Media & Society class.

True grit, what comes to mind? To me, it means being full of courage and wit. It is the bravery that comes from within to complete a difficult task. In the movie, “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers have managed to set the table with grit, accompanied by a side of compassion, in bringing a Portis novel to the big screen.

In the 2010 film adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, “True Grit” tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old Arkansas girl, whose father was recently shot and killed by his business partner, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). As the eldest of the Ross children and the most literate in the family, Mattie appoints herself to “avenge her father’s death.” She pursues Arkansas Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn as the person who will successfully give justice its due. Cogburn is the toughest they come; he impresses Mattie with his “true grit.” Likewise, she has much of it herself. Coincidently, Texas’ Lone Star Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has a warrant for the arrest of Chaney and attaches himself to the duo. The story evolves around a Marshal, a Ranger, and a young girl on a manhunt in the Good Old West.

Directors, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen, revive American love for Western movies. The goal of a typical Western is to tell a story occurring in the “Old West” during the late 1800’s. Its theme centers on the good guys getting rid of the bad guys. Not only does “True Grit” follow this goal and theme, it also reveals an underlying message where people learn to develop trust and respect. The sadness of a fourteen year old settling her father’s estate, working with strangers, and putting her self in danger evolves in a humorous way. Cogburn moves from “How old are you girl?” to making Mattie climb an unsafe tree limb in order to cut down the hanged man to in the end, saving her life. In their early encounters, LaBoeuf feels the need to exercise his authority and reprimand Mattie by thrashing her behind. These encounters brought a different light to the not so funny, bullying experiences for Mattie. Yet in the end, an unspoken bond brought out the strength in those who fought for the good.

Call it if you will a remake of the 1969 movie with academy award actor John Wayne or an original screen adaptation of the Portis book, True Grit takes the viewer through a time warp into the days of 1800 western wilderness. Filmed in the open land and forests of Texas and New Mexico with visits through rivers and rocky ranges gives us an ideal setting for the deadly manhunt. Taking place in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the set was built in Granger, Texas. Pre-existing asphalt streets, telephone poles, and wires were some of the obstacles digitally erased in editing.

Lighting, natural through the use of sunny days, LaBoeuf sarcastically criticizes Cogburn for missing his target “cause the sun got in your eye”. There was also artificial lighting involved including the reflection off the knife blade on a dead man’s snake-ridden carcass, campfires and cabin fires, brings about a daily cycle. Time is of essence in finding Cheney. The viewer is able to experience the manhunt through a day-night, day-to-day cycle.

A theme of inspiration noted in Proverbs 28:1 “The wicked flee when no man pursueth…” is cited in the movie’s initial frames and accompanied by Iris DeMent singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” A peaceful mood is set through the story as pursuance of ridding the world of the bad-guy evolves. Having God’s arms to lean on sets an underlying tone that there could have been another rider on horse with the trio. To avoid boredom from hearing the same music throughout the film, the Coens relied on musical director and frequent orchestrator, Carter Burwell (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Miller’s Crossing, et al) to set the tone. In addition to voice, Burwell mixed piano with full orchestration while blending period music with a nineteenth-century Protestant flair. Given that Mattie’s mission orchestrated the story, the Coens wanted to be sure the music accented her character: a rigid and stern young woman, well advanced for her years. Burwell wanted the audience to hear music that Mattie might sing. “Talk About Suffering” and ‘What a Friend We Have In Jesus” are examples of additional hymns adding to the soundtrack. Mattie’s persistence “not to be deterred” and to right the wrongful killing of her father instills passion in the viewer. “…Everlasting Arms” continues to set the mood as it is played in the background through the very end of the film when adult Mattie reached to reconnect with Rooster Cogburn. His death brought him back into Mattie’s everlasting arms as she laid him to rest in her family burial ground.

With no surprise and $100 million dollars from box office sales since December 22, 2010, True Grit has cinched the top seed of all Western movies made in the last twenty years. Credit goes to the Coen brothers for bringing big Hollywood names to the script. Jeff Bridges, as Rooster Cogburn, steps up as an unkempt and drunken U.S. Marshal. His almost incomprehensible mumble is not in step with a U.S. Marshal. Yet his almost laissez-faire attitude leaves no doubt that he is indeed as tough and focused as his reputation. No one in Hollywood could have done a more spectacular job in this role.

Matt Damon, as a young robust Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, brings his personal drive, not to mention being a former Harvard University student, as he portrays a well-kempt Ranger who is focused on arresting Cheney. He demands respect and takes no less than that from anyone, especially Mattie.

Josh Brolin portrays the hunted Cheney. The Coens have pulled Brolin from their Oscar winning movie ” No Country for Old Men” and marked him with a blackened, gun powder marked face; a marked man. His character is deceitful and lame.

Hailee Steinfeld, a newcomer to the big screen, assumes the role of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross. Mattie has a sense of vision seen through her mature ways, keen speech, diction, and focus. Her love of family gives her the backbone to seek vengeance in bringing her father’s murderer to death.

Mattie’s admirable character matched that of her noble horse Blackie: strong willed and determined. Film credits cite a mechanical horse. So can we assume Blackie was not abused as Cogburn raced to seek medical help for the snake-bit girl? I would think animal rights groups should not be offended.

It is important to review True Grit as we see it on the screen. Through the Coens, we see the characters; smell their stench and the whiskey on their breaths. Makeup artists portray them as the meanest hombres in the west bringing scars, facial hairs, and rotted teeth to the table. Cleverly written scripts with detail to sharp expressions and humor had me wonder, at times, if the priority of Mattie’s mission was taken seriously. It was entertaining to watch a fourteen-year-old girl wrap two lawmen around her finger! Yet through the convincing story line and performances, I became convinced that Cogburn and LaBeouf became sympathetic with Mattie while admiring her grit. I was convinced, that true grit was really about staying focused while pursuing a goal. True Grit brought entertainment to the screen-putting viewers on horseback with guns in holster under star lit nights and snowy days. It made us feel that solving any problem could be taken care of with a Marshal and a gun!

Like many Hollywood directors, the Coen brothers have forwarded their “stylistic signatures” through exaggerated language by stretching the Northwood’s dialect in “Fargo” to the laid back, slurred speaking, and much younger Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski.” Bridges brings much of his “Lebowski” character as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” as the mumbling Marshal trying to convince Mattie he has a handle on the spoken language. “True Grit” boasts the more proper pronunciations of words led by Mattie Ross’ dialogue and often imitated by Cogburn. As in written language, contractions were not part of a “True Grit” line: for example, “I do not recognize that man” and “I will not be deterred!” “Fargo” and “Miller’s Crossing” set the pace for puddles of blood. The consequence of an ill-fated interaction, a gunshot in the face or a knife to the fingers, could have been left for the viewer’s imagination. However, in true Coen form, they have no trouble showing splattered blood, be it on the victim’s or shooter’s face, freshly chopped fingers on a table, or blood strewn in the snow! (How much more impressive can red on white be?)

The working cast of the movie has reviewed a Coen brothers’ success story. Interviews with Hailee report they seem to have the same ideas; talking to one is like talking to the other. This brings to mind that two of the same can function as one: Herculean dragons, Double Mint gum, and the Coen brothers where doubling the pleasure can indeed, double the fun.

3 thoughts on “True Grit: Determination in Everlasting Arms

  1. I watched the 1969 film of True Grit. It is a great movie! It started off a little slow for me but I got into it the more I watched. Great review!

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