[The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: The idea of the modern western as an art of deconstruction has become so engrained in today's film culture that it's disconcerting when a new western comes along that doesn't take a revisionist stance on the once-beloved Hollywood genre. Westerns don't get made very much these days, but when they are we expect them to be in the lineage of Peckinpah or Leone rather than the old Hollywood craftsmen who made the genre so ubiquitous in the 1940s and '50s. You see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. Although most film fans would expect a Coen brothers western to be a sardonic, revisionist take on the genre, True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen's first proper stab at a genre that has often haunted their work in spirit, is a good old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness western in the classical tradition.
This actually shouldn't be surprising. There are markers of western style in many other Coen films, notably O Brother Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men: the love of landscapes, the gruffly poetic language, the stark morality, even the fascination with hats that runs through Miller's Crossing, for in what other genre besides the western do hats mean so much? True Grit might be the Coens' first actual western, but it's such a natural fit for them because they've always kind of seemed like western filmmakers in a deeper sense. This is why the Old West milieu, sparsely populated as it is with oddballs and degenerates and criminals, feels like an extension of the Mexican border towns of No Country for Old Men, or the wasted Northwestern wilds of Fargo, or even the backwards suburban absurdity of Raising Arizona.
True Grit is an adaptation of a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was already made into a film in 1969 by director Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in the role that won him his only Oscar. Though the Coens' film differs from Hathaway's in several important ways and numerous smaller ones—apparently because the Coens follow the novel, which I haven't read, more faithfully than Hathaway did—the two films also share a good amount of common ground. What's ultimately most striking about the Coens' film is how traditional it is, how unshowy and subtle. It balances humor and darkness and action, and it does so within a wholly classical context. First and foremost, it's just a great story and a great western, and its humble artifice is very refreshing.
Jason Bellamy: It is indeed. Over and over, I find myself thinking of the Coens' True Grit as a "wonderful little film"—that's the label that keeps popping into my head—and I say "little" with fondness. As you say, the Coens aren't out to reinvent the western. Nor are they out to emboss the western in gold, to treat every minor moment with epic splendor, akin to Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (a movie I like very much, by the way). Instead they take this rather modest western at face value, celebrating its inherent high points without feeling the need to make a boldface statement about the entire genre or about their abilities within it. I suspect one of the reasons this film is so humble is because the Coens have worked so consistently of late, churning out about a movie a year. If the heyday of the western—at least in terms of its popularity and ubiquity—can be traced back to a time when someone like John Ford would make two movies a year, I think there's a natural correlation between the western and unfussiness, because directors such as Ford set our expectations for what a western should look like and because cinematic opulence has the potential to create tonal inconsistency within a genre typically dominated by crusty, relatively inelegant characters in harsh environments.
Speaking of which, let's not beat around the tumbleweed any longer before discussing True Grit's crusty and relatively inelegant main character, Rooster Cogburn. Like you, I haven't read Portis' novel, but I feel safe in assuming that the majority of the book's fans have spent the past 40 years imagining Rooster in the form of his original onscreen depiction by John Wayne. The Duke casts a large shadow in any instance, but especially in this one. Rooster is one of Wayne's most identifiable roles, not just because he won an Oscar for it, or because his True Grit is popular, or because he played the character twice (the second time in 1975's Rooster Cogburn), but mostly because Rooster Cogburn's personality is so intertwined with Wayne's iconic persona. Wayne's detractors often note that Wayne lacked range, and that, given his consistent trademark drawl, about the only way to distinguish one Wayne character from another is by observing his costume. But while that's roughly accurate, it doesn't mean that every character Wayne ever played had a similar effect. Rooster Cogburn is one of those special roles that seemed indelibly Wayne's—because he wore that eye patch so well, because his inherent presence and stature made him a natural to play the "meanest" marshal around, because his inner softness allowed the bond between Rooster and Mattie to feel convincing and because John Wayne was born to be the cowboy who puts the reins in his teeth and rides toward four armed men with a gun in each hand.
When John Lee Hancock remade 1960's The Alamo, I don't think anyone worried about whether Billy Bob Thornton could escape the shadow of John Wayne when he donned the coonskin cap of Davy Crockett, because that role wasn't inherently Wayne's. But donning the eye patch of Rooster Cogburn is another story, and in approaching the Coens' True Grit, it was impossible not to wonder what Jeff Bridges's performance would look like, and whether it could create its own space, because for so many people Rooster Cogburn and John Wayne were (or maybe still are) inseparable. It's a challenging position, to be sure. So, Ed, I'm curious what you think: Does Bridges meet the challenge?
EH: In a word, yes, Bridges does meet the challenge, but he does so by kind of skirting around it. If there's one thing about this True Grit that feels very different from its predecessor, it's Rooster, even though the character retains the same uneasy mix of hard frontier moralist, amoral bounty hunter and incorrigible drunkard. Rooster is naturally larger than life, but in some ways Bridges seems to play him as someone smaller, more sunken into himself. Wayne's performance as Rooster is big and bold, flirting with self-parody, balancing Wayne's characteristic manly stoicism against touches of silly slapstick and absurdity. Wayne's Rooster is capable of clumsily drawling out tongue-twisters like, "Mr. Rat, I have a writ here says you're to stop eating Chin Lee's cornmeal forthwith. Now it's a rat writ, writ for a rat, and this is lawful service of the same," an outrageously overwritten threat directed at an actual rat. It's awkward, but it's also hilarious, especially when he turns around and uses the rat as a roundabout justification for his habit of killing criminals outright rather than delivering them to justice in the courts. It's impossible to imagine Bridges's Rooster being that goofy, even though his performance is also defined by its ornate but often slurred language.
What Bridges brings to this role, I think, is introspection. It's a showy performance by most standards, but compared to Wayne he seems positively naturalistic. His snarling is less theatrical, his diction more unpredictable. Bridges doesn't have Wayne's long history of playing this kind of character to draw on. Where Wayne was portraying what happens when one of his typical heroes ages and gets cranky, Bridges is simply inhabiting a character. Where Wayne's Rooster always had the precise, slow drawl that's unmistakably Wayne's—even his drunkenness seemed considered and actorly—Bridges's Rooster has a habit of mumbling and trailing off, slurring his words together into a gravelly soup where meanings are elusive. Bridges brings a bit of the Dude's messiness to Rooster, and it makes Rooster seem more like a real, crumbling, crusty old coot than the self-conscious caricature that the Duke brought to the screen.
This difference is manifested in countless small touches throughout the film—check out the slack-jawed Lebowski-esque stare that Rooster fixes on Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) when she's really pattering away—but it's most apparent in the character's late-in-the-film collapse and redemption. Wayne's Rooster was slightly silly from the beginning, and he purposefully overplays such moments as his drunken fall from his horse. There's a lot of emotion in Wayne's Rooster, a lot of sadness, but it's the sadness of seeing a screen icon struggling with aging, the sadness of seeing one of the cinema's great tough guys dealing with the loss of his potency. This was a recurring theme in Wayne's late roles, and it's undeniably poignant. But in a way it prevents one from thinking of Rooster as a character, independent of his meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne. Bridges, by submerging himself in Rooster, allows the character's physical and moral decay to be affecting not because of what it says about the actor, but for what it says about the character: his moving, rambling "I bow out" speech is devastating, a total repudiation of his dignity, and it's all the more powerful for the quiet, forceful intensity that Bridges brings to it. It feels like a proud, strong man brought to the point where he's capable of turning his back on everything he's ever stood for. Wayne, playing Rooster as a cranky culmination of his own screen history, offers a touching and often funny elegy for his own career, but he doesn't stare into the abyss the way Bridges's Rooster does.
JB: Before I dig into your analysis, I suppose it's worth sharing how I came (and came back) to these films. In late childhood and early adolescence, I watched Hathaway's True Grit three or four times, but I hadn't seen it since, and so while watching the Coens' film my recollection of Hathaway's original was fuzzy at best. I remembered the general plot, the signature scenes in the meadow and snake pit, and the personalities of the main characters, but not much more. As the Coens' film unfolded, much felt familiar but most of it felt new. Maybe twice I remembered a line of dialogue before it was delivered, but mostly I recognized them only after the fact. I bring this up to make it clear that my mental image of Rooster Cogburn wasn't much more specific than what anyone who hadn't seen the film would be likely to come up with if asked to imagine John Wayne in a cowboy hat and black eye patch. I had remembered that Rooster was feisty and that, in the parlance of the film, he liked to "pull a cork," but that's about it. So for me Jeff Bridges was working within a fairly blank slate. Yet somehow he failed to live up to my expectations.
And yet here's what's strange: After seeing the Coens' film (twice), I went back to Hathaway's and found that Wayne didn't live up to my expectations either. It seems I must have been comparing Bridges, and then Wayne, with Wayne's legendary aura, rather than to Wayne's actual performance. In my memory, Rooster was a huge character, much like Wayne was a huge icon, but upon further review Rooster isn't especially huge in either film. That isn't to imply that Rooster doesn't have presence or a personality. Of course he does. He's an action hero in an eye patch, for crying out loud. But as much as both films establish through verbal testimony that Rooster has an unusually quick trigger finger and limited patience, I find that neither Wayne nor Bridges fashion a character anywhere near as ornery or fierce as Rooster's reputation. In each case, Rooster's cantankerousness seems playful, not off-putting, and his use of force seems appropriate, not extraordinary. I concede that might be part of the point: True Grit (especially in the Coens' version) is about the deceptiveness of appearances and assumptions. Regardless, when I watched the Coens' film I found that Bridges's Rooster felt small. I think you're correct that Wayne's Rooster relies on the character's "meta status as an outgrowth of Wayne," and I agree that Bridges better conceals himself within the character (the beard helps), but I never got a great sense of who Bridges's Rooster really is.
Subtitles might have helped. Bridges's mumbling is so difficult to decipher that at some point I concluded that the Coens aren't all that interested in anything that comes out of Rooster's mouth. Bridges's Rooster is easier to understand in some scenes than others, but that creates its own problem: his "accent" often changes. In the beginning of the film, particularly in the court scene, and near the end of the film, Bridges seems to be doing an impression of James Gammon doing an impression of Billy Bob Thornton's Karl "Sling Blade" Childers: same cadence, same paralyzed lower lip. In other scenes, however, he sounds more like a groggy Wilford Brimley. I rarely get worked up over such inconsistencies, but Bridges's vocal antics so dominate his performance that it's a legitimate distraction. It's as if Bridges was so determined to avoid sounding anything like Wayne that he made Rooster's voice the focal point of his performance. So for me what personality Bridges's Rooster does have is the result of the way the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins frame his expressive face in moments of silence, particularly in some of the film's tremendous closeups, most notably in the scene in which Mattie rides Little Blackie across the river, and the scene in which Rooster sizes up the bear man, and the scene in which Rooster shoots Emmett Quincy (Paul Rae) in the dugout by the river. I can't say I ever felt I was watching Bridges's Rooster "stare into the abyss." But even though I think Bridges's uneven performance is the film's weak point, I do enjoy all the moments when the Coens allow us to stare into Rooster's face.
EH: It's interesting that you say that Rooster isn't a "huge" character, that he doesn't live up to expectations. That's a major point of both films, no? Rooster is larger than life, but he's decidedly not larger than life in the ways we'd expect. In both films—but even more forcefully in the Coens' version—the film builds Rooster up only to tear him down, then perhaps build him up again as he belatedly redeems his tough-guy image. Before we ever meet Rooster, we hear how nasty he is, how mean and unforgiving, how tenacious. And then we (and Mattie) meet him, and he turns out to be an unstable, unreliable drunk who's constantly sleeping off hangovers and can barely talk at times. Rooster is meant to be a disappointment. He was perhaps once a really great man, or at least a really effective killer, but now he's a drunken mess who lives in a filthy room behind a store, and who occasionally still drags himself out of bed to go kill criminals for money. There's even an implication—again, developed more thoroughly by the Coens, but present in both films—that it's because of Rooster's moral degradation that he's earned his reputation as a ruthless killer. In the courtroom scene in both films, it quickly becomes apparent that Rooster is lying about what happened on his latest mission, that rather than bravely facing down a gang of armed criminals he ambushed them during their dinner and killed most of them before they could make a move, likely without ever giving them a chance to surrender peacefully. This suggests that Rooster is something of a coward; he wanted to get the kills over with rather than risk a fair fight. The Coens later have Rooster admit that he was once a thief himself, and he's unrepentant about it, which suggests that his turn to the law is a matter of going where the money is rather than a moral imperative.
That's one fruitful departure from the Hathaway version, and it informs another. In both films, there's a fascinating scene in which Rooster and LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell and Matt Damon in the 1969 and 2010 versions, respectively) talk about their experiences during the Civil War, and LaBoeuf insults Rooster's outfit as "a bunch of thieves," rather than a proper military unit. In Hathaway's film, Rooster is able to beat down the accusation, largely through the strength of Wayne's drawling charisma, which always made it difficult to imagine a Wayne character who didn't abide by an old-fashioned code of honor and masculinity. The Coens, on the other hand, allow LaBoeuf's accusation to stick, because Rooster later acknowledges his checkered past, and moreover because Bridges's incarnation of the character has an air of moral turpitude much deeper than Wayne's goofy antics.
That's what I mean when I say that Bridges's Rooster stares into the abyss of his own degradation. This is especially clear in the scene I already alluded to above, where Rooster gives up on their mission. That's a pretty astonishing scene when you think about it: how often do you hear the ostensible hero of a picture like this declaring himself a failure and his mission hopeless? Whatever you think of Bridges's performance in this film—and I for one like his graceless slurring and elevation of language and accent over meaning—he's pretty amazing in that scene. It's the nadir for Rooster, the moment when he's as far as it's possible to be from his reputation as a man with "grit." Bridges is, to me anyway, very moving in that scene. Throughout the film, his rambling, difficult-to-understand discourse makes him a character set apart from others, so thoroughly collapsed into himself that he can barely communicate. "I bow out" is loud and clear, though, even as Rooster sinks deeper than ever into self-pity and isolation.
JB: As disappointing as I find Bridges's performance, I think we see his character and the film's treatment of him mostly the same, though we might disagree a bit on the Coens' intent. In my view, more than anything the Coens allow Rooster to be small so as to further enhance Mattie by comparison. Whereas Hathaway's film is very much shared between Rooster and Mattie, right down to their final moment together, the Coens' film is Mattie's through and through. Despite his extensive screen time, Bridges's Rooster is not much more than a supporting character, and I think that's what surprised me: that he's so easy to disregard, and that I didn't feel the Coens demanded that I reconcile who Rooster is and what he stands for.
And that's where the mumbling isn't just a matter of taste. You said you're fine with the "elevation of language and accent over meaning," but there's some pretty significant meaning that risks being overlooked in the Coens' film. Take for example that courthouse scene: In Hathaway's version, Rooster is caught being loose with the facts, but that only makes him seem charming. When Wayne's Rooster suggests that hogs might have moved a body into the fire, it's almost as if he's mocking his prosecutor, as if he's indeed the last person who should know how the corpses were positioned. But in the Coens' film, Bridges's Rooster is clearly on the defensive, and offers the hogs as an excuse because he can come up with nothing else. One gets the sense that Bridges's Rooster really doesn't remember how the shootout went down but that he knows it's entirely plausible, in fact likely, that he shot someone in the back. At least, that's the impression one gets if they can comprehend the dialogue. I recognize that it's a little silly to complain about the indecipherability of the dialogue while all but quoting it, but I feel that by reducing the clarity of Rooster's words the film also reduces Rooster—and not just metaphorically.
Of course, I've already mentioned the benefit of this approach: the less we focus on Rooster, the more we focus on Mattie. And if two months ago you'd told me that would be a recipe for success, I'd never have believed it. In Hathaway's film, Mattie, as played by Kim Darby, isn't much more than a nagging tagalong who insists on accompanying Rooster almost out of an accountant's need for completeness. She's the catapult that launches the plot and gives it momentum, but not much more. In the Coens' film, however, Mattie, as played by Hailee Steinfeld, is the film's heart and soul. She's along for the ride because, well, it's her ride. If it were up to her, she'd go after Chaney alone. In these films, both Matties are determined to see Tom Chaney hanged, but only one of them seems truly focused on vengeance: Steinfeld's. Am I right?
EH: I'm not going to say no, because there's no question that Steinfeld delivers a far better and richer performance than Darby did. It's a remarkable performance, dominating and driving the film, both because Steinfeld is so amazing in the role and because there's no Wayne-sized presence to distract from her centrality. She is a forceful, exceptional young girl, someone who seems old before her time. There's something of an accountant in her, yes, and also a lawyer, and also the crotchety old maid she'll later become. She pursues revenge against Chaney with a businesslike dedication that doesn't quite disguise the passionate feelings motivating her to set off on this course. The only place we disagree, at least a little, is that I don't really believe Mattie is lacking these same qualities in Hathaway's film. The Coens' film deepens and expands upon the characters and relationships of the original film, presumably by drawing more on the novel, but the whole emotional and thematic foundation of this story is more or less present already in Hathaway's film. If the Coens are more successful in developing some of those currents, as I suspect we both think they are, it's a matter of emphasis and subtle tonal shifts rather than major departures.