Over the course of this week, I'll be looking at five Westerns from the past 20 years, a particularly fascinating period in a genre that has long since left its glory days, but continues to produce some gems.
Adapted from: True Grit by Charles Portis
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld
Written and Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
It's a hell of an opening and an introduction for one of the greatest female characters, not only in the Western genre, but film and literature in general, Mattie Ross. In her quest to bring down Chaney, she joins forces with an irascible US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, and a jumped-up Texas Ranger, LaBeouf (pronounced La Beef). They trek into the Choctaw Nation in pursuit of Chaney, believed to be in cahoots with "Lucky" Ned Pepper. Mattie is consistently told she doesn't belong, that she simply doesn't have the ability to keep up or succeed, but she doesn't let that stop her until it eventually brings her face to face with Chaney himself.
Part of what makes True Grit so special is that it puts a spin on that standard revenge story by having at its centre a girl seeking vengeance. Women and children rarely get to do revenge; they get to die horribly at the beginning of the story in order to give our hero some motivation. Mattie Ross is a rare breed, but there's no attempt to soften Mattie's experiences for her age; she's confronted with grim death from the moment she steps out into Fort Smith, as three men are hanged, and then at every point through her journey. But she isn't put off by it. In fact, it spurs her on. She wishes to see Chaney hanged herself, eventually getting the opportunity to kill him herself (something which the Coens allow her to do, rather than simply facilitate LaBeouf's killing of him as in Charles Portis' novel).
Mattie gets to be her own hero, write her own story and live the life she wants to lead. She suffers for her struggle, losing her arm to a snakebite, but this functions more as a sign of her 'grit' rather than a punishment for her actions. Portis delights in his central character and uses her narration to convey a wealth of information about her without ever straying from her story and into exposition. There's a blunt style to her narration, a concise construction of sentences that demonstrates her straight-talking ways. Frequent Biblical references and quotations illustrate her faith whilst her little asides about those she interacts with are tinged with admiration, resentment or unintentional humour depending on their relationship. She's a fascinating character and one that it's easy to fall in love with as you're reading.
To replicate that character, so vivid on the page, is no mean feat. Kim Darby gave it an admirable shot in the 1969 Henry Hathaway adaptation, but the story there gives equal weight to Mattie and John Wayne as the belligerent Cogburn. In removing Portis' framing device of the older Mattie retelling her story, Hathaway's version loses that audience feeling of close kinship with Mattie. However, the Coens recognise the importance of having that narration in Portis' novel, as Ethan Coen stated: "It's partly a question of point-of-view. The book is entirely in the voice of the 14-year-old girl. That sort of tips the feeling of it over a certain way. I think [the book is] much funnier than the movie was so I think, unfortunately, they lost a lot of humour in both the situations and in her voice."
The idea of voice is a key part of the adaptation's success. Over their illustrious career, the Coen brothers have carved out their own little corner of cinema, so recognisable is their style and patter as well as the characters they create. In spite of that, they tend to remain remarkably faithful in their adaptations, acknowledging the style of the author they're adapting and working it to fit into their own world. True Grit utilises much of Portis' dialogue for their screenplay; it helps that their own rhythms and characteristic linguistic flourishes fit well with Portis as well as a similar sense of dark humour. Mattie, in particular, is translated so well from page to screen and keeping her front and centre is essential to that.
Hailee Steinfeld's performance is absolutely at the heart of that success. Her ear for the rhythms and quirks of Mattie's dialogue as well as her understanding of the character brings Mattie to life. The film gives her plenty of opportunities to showcase this, lifting moments from Mattie's narrative to work as explorations of her character. Some are bigger than others; her negotiation scene with Stonehill is just as lengthy in the book and just as amusing. Watching a fourteen year old girl run rings around a weary, ageing salesman will never not be fun.
A personal favourite though is the way in which the Coens deal with Mattie crossing the river after Cogburn and LaBeouf attempt to leave her behind. Her narration in the novel makes light of it, skipping over it in a few short sentences, but the film gives her a big soaring heroic moment. She battles against the current with her horse, wading through the river and refusing to give up. The score swells, the camera emphasises the extraordinary nature of the feat in various wide shots and Mattie simply gets to the other side and carries on.
The question of which character possesses the 'true grit' of the title runs throughout the narrative. At first, Mattie believes it to be Rooster Cogburn, because she is told so, but the shine soon wears off when she realises he's a drunken oaf for a lot of the time. She then believes it to be LaBeouf, attempting to convince him to stay and help them in their hunt for Chaney. Of course, the truth of the story is that all three have that 'grit' in their own way (LaBeouf and Rooster coming back to save their charge), but the title itself refers to Mattie and her determination to avenge her father's death. She makes her way in a male-dominated environment and not only succeeds but also gains the heartfelt respect of the two men who initially tried to leave her behind, fearing she would not be capable of the tough journey.
I've watched Westerns all my life and it remains a favourite genre, but the male-centric nature of it can sometimes alienate. This adaptation of True Grit stands amongst the comparatively smaller collection of female-led Westerns as one of the best. A girl like Mattie Ross is a rare figure, but she's a shining beacon of strength, tenacity and grit in a world that seeks to tame her and never quite succeeds.