Including the epilogue was not a good idea.
The Coen Brothers have been direct about how they were not remaking the John Wayne movie when they set out to film their own version of True Grit. They were adapting Charles Portis’ novel and they planned on their adaptation being more faithful, in spirit if not in all the particulars, to the book than the Wayne movie was. They did not think the first True Grit, which was directed by Henry Hathaway and released in 1969, was all that good a movie in its own right either.
I’m here to tell you the Coen Brothers were wrong on several counts.
The Coens’ True Grit is more faithful to Portis’ novel in at least one but impressive way.
Hailee Steinfeld is the living, breathing, braid-wearing embodiment of Portis’ heroine and narrator, Mattie Ross, giving such an indelible performance and making Mattie so much her own character that I suspect that the effect will work backwards on my imagination and when I watch the Wayne movie again Kim Darby will be erased from the screen and I will not be able to enjoy the movie in the old way as I stare at the blank space next to John Wayne that I will be wishing Steinfeld was there filling.
And this is why including the epilogue, which comes straight from the book, was not a good idea.
The epilogue takes place thirty years in the future from when the whole rest of the movie is set and presents us with a middle-aged Mattie Ross, played with no distinction by a non-descript character actress who is given little to do and doesn’t make much of that. There is nothing in this Mattie that connects her with the Mattie we’ve spent the last two hours rooting for.
The unfortunate effect is to cut us off from the best thing about the movie, which is not just Steinfeld’s Mattie but her interactions with Jeff Bridges’ Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger La Beouf.
Before I take this down the road any farther, I’d better clear away some brush.
First, the existence of Portis’ novel and the Wayne movie are irrelevant to whether or not you should see this movie. You do not have to have read the one or seen the other or liked either or both. This True Grit stands as a movie in its own right as neither an adaptation or a remake.
Second, I presume you know from either reading the reviews or from having already seen it yourself, that the Coens’ True Grit is a good movie. I am about to write about my disappointment with certain things in the film and that might give the impression that I didn’t like it. I did like it. My disappointment is due to choices the Coens’ made that reminded me why I like the Wayne movie and why I love the book. That’s me and it shouldn’t bear on your feelings about the movie or dissuade you from going to see it.
I recommend going to see it, if that matters.
The things that disappointed me happened to remind me of things I liked about the book and the other movie but they are flaws in the Coen Brothers’ movie as a movie. If certain scenes had been done better or left out entirely, if certain parts had been better cast or given a different sort of attention, I wouldn’t have thought about the book or the other movie, just as I didn’t think about either one during the great majority of scenes that worked. There are holes in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit that I filled with my memories and feelings. You might fill them with a trip to the lobby for popcorn.
Now, to get back to the epilogue.
Of all the ways the Coens’ True Grit could have been and is faithful to Portis’ novel, including the epilogue is the least effective, because it’s a five-minute dramatization of a purely literary device. In the book it’s just Portis writing his way out of his story. There’s a little more to it, of course, but essentially what the Coens have done is the same as if they were making a movie version of a fairy tale and tried to end it by dramatizing “And they all lived happily ever after.”
I don’t know why the Coens thought they needed it. Possibly to avoid having to invent an ending of their own. Possibly they felt duty-bound to include a grown-up Mattie because of their intention to be more faithful to the novel which is a told story. Mattie Ross narrates her own tale but she does so from the vantage point of her old age. The elderly Mattie is a character in the book as she can’t help letting details of her life since the main action of the story slip into her telling of the tale.
This, though, is a joke for readers. There is no point in trying to work the joke into a movie version, even if it could be dramatized, because it’s a joke that arises from the narrator herself being a literary device.
Portis didn’t put the elderly Mattie in there because she’s an interesting character in her own right---she isn’t, at all, that’s part of the humor. The fourteen year old Mattie is able to do what she does because she is an overly-serious, very conventionally minded, and thoroughly unimaginative person and so it’s not really a surprise that her adventure doesn’t change her and that she grows up to be an overly-serious, very conventionally minded, and thoroughly unimaginative adult.
By making her such a person, Portis can get away with the Biblically-inflected poetry of the narrative and the dialogue that is the source of much of the novel’s comedy, and it is a comic novel. One of the jokes is that Mattie doesn’t always know she’s being funny.
The elderly Mattie is a strict Presbyterian and something of a Puritan. So is the young Mattie, for that matter. Of course she’s going to have a writing style that is based on the one book she thinks is worth reading. The result is prose that is often comically at odds with what it’s being used to describe but which is also just as often as lyrical as a psalm and as powerfully and straight-forwardly dramatic as the gospels.
But besides the fact that the middle-aged Mattie we meet to no purpose and with no sympathy in the epilogue isn’t the Mattie who is narrating the book, she is another remembered Mattie, everything to be gained by faithfulness to the novel is already given to us whenever a character opens his or her mouth to speak. You don’t have to include Mattie the narrator to bring her voice into the movie because it’s in every line of dialogue.
The epilogue is unnecessary. The mistake of it is that it takes us away from the movie and the performances we just enjoyed and want to savor to make us watch a boring short about pretty much nothing of any interest. It’s as if the Coens filmed their own version of The Music Man but went out of their way to make sure we didn’t leave the theater singing Seventy-six Trombones.
But it does something else, too. It highlights a general weakness of the rest of the movie. The poor casting and lackadaisical directing of the supporting players.
In the epilogue Mattie meets the outlaws Cole Younger and Frank James who are now old men trading on their former notoriety by running their own cut-rate version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
They are far from the desperadoes they once were, which is the point: that Wild West was dying when Mattie was fourteen and set out on her adventure. But we should still be able to see the dangerous young men in the mild-mannered old men and here I think that if there was to be any dramatic effect in including the epilogue the Coens should have resorted to some stunt casting.
I would have liked to see Keith Carradine and Stacey Keach in the parts. Keach played Frank James and Carradine played Jim Younger in The Long Riders---Carradine’s late brother David played Cole in that movie and if he were alive he would have reprised the part if I’d had any say in it.
Even better would have been Cliff Robertson and Robert Duvall who played Younger and Jesse James in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid. The actor who played Frank James in that one is gone now too, but he was not a star. I can see why the Coens wouldn’t have gone for that though, Duvall having played Lucky Ned Pepper in the first True Grit movie.
But the Coens essentially didn’t cast anybody in the parts. They used actors of no distinction, hid their faces behind ridiculous and greasy-looking facial hair, and then barely focused any attention on them, treating them almost as background characters instead of as the cameos they ought to have been, as long as they were going to be there at all.
And they did the same with all the supporting characters. Which is one of the holes in the movie that I wound up filling with memories of the Wayne movie.
Steinfeld is terrific. Jeff Bridges is what he is, the best movie actor of his generation. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin are both very good. But considering what the Coens got out of the rest of the cast or seem to have wanted, the four of them might as well be alone on the screen.
It’s unfair to say that Barry Pepper is no Robert Duvall or Dakin Matthews is no Strother Martin or even that Jarlath Conroy is no Dennis Hopper. But they aren’t even allowed to be what they are. Like just about all the other male supporting cast members, they are lost behind their dirty beards and neglected by the camera. The Coens seem to have had a hard time keeping the camera pointed at them.
As the over-matched horse trader, Colonel Stonehill, Matthews gets the best treatment but his scenes are all with Steinfeld who blows him off the screen.
A star or a great character actor, like Steve Buscemi, who could have held his own against Steinfeld, would have made those scenes even better and, more to the point, increased our admiration for Mattie.
But that assumes that with a Buscemi in the part the Coens would have taken more trouble in their presentation of the character.
And this is one of the ways the John Wayne movie is both a better movie than the Coens give it credit for being and more faithful to the book than their movie.
Most of Portis’ novel is taken up with Mattie’s encounters with the colorful eccentrics she meets up with on her way to tracking down the coward who murdered her father. The book is full of finely-etched portraits and sketches of even the most minor characters and while not all of them appear in the 1969 movie and not all the ones who do are played by stars or future stars, director Henry Hathaway gives all of them their due, right down to the useless cat who shares living quarters with Rooster in the back room of Chen Lee’s grocery store.
The Coens had their pick of a number of minor characters to include or leave out, but oddly they decided to invent characters and scenes. It’s their movie, so why not? But if your stated intention is to be more faithful to a book than you believe a previous adaptation had been, wouldn’t you go looking in the book for characters and scenes to include in your version that weren’t in that other movie rather than dragging in scenes of your own that reference other books and movies?
The Coens have invented three big scenes that look to me to have been inspired by Lonesome Dove, Jeremiah Johnson, and, weirdly, Oliver Twist, and that add nothing to their re-telling of True Grit, either as a supposedly faithful adaptation or an original movie in its own right.
For that matter, the epilogue might be nodding at Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians and there’s a shot of Jeff Bridges framed in the black-edged entranceway to a mine that could be an homage to John Wayne, although the Wayne of The Searchers not True Grit.
But, again, these don’t add anything to the Coens’ movie.
Let me tell you what does add to their movie.
Long before now, you’d probably figured out that I haven’t just read Portis’ novel, I have it memorized.
I was a lucky kid. I stumbled upon the novel when I was in eighth grade, long before I saw the first True Grit movie. It became one of my favorite books. Still is. I think it’s one of the great American novels. In fact, it’s on my list of the twenty-five novels Martians should read if they want to understand what is to be an American. The upshot of this, however, is that for me Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn and Lucky Ned Pepper and the lawyer J. Noble Daggett, who the Coens, in another goof, left out of their movie, are characters unto themselves, not parts played by John Wayne and Robert Duvall and John Fiedler.
I think Wayne did a fine job as Rooster, but he isn’t to my mind the definitive Rooster any more than Jeff Bridges is. Both got at different aspects of the character but I don’t see either one when I pick up the book or, rather, I can see either one or somebody else as Rooster but not instead of Rooster.
Which leads me, finally, to a way the Coens’ movie is both a better movie than the Wayne movie and a more faithful adaptation.
The Coens’ movie stars Jeff Bridges.
As I said, I think Wayne is just fine as Rooster. But he’s still John Wayne and he can’t help tilting the movie in his favor. Mattie, in the book and in both movies, has to learn to see the hero in the one-eyed fat man she hires based on his reputation but whose grit she begins to doubt. But with John Wayne in the part, we don’t doubt Rooster’s grit for a minute, because, well, because we can see he’s really John Wayne. One of the pleasures of watching the first movie is waiting for the moment when Mattie realizes that she’s been in the company of John Wayne all along.
“No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!”
But this, along with Kim Darby’s not having a particularly strong screen presence, makes the movie more Rooster’s story than Mattie’s.
Bridges, not being a living legend, can give way to his Mattie in a way Wayne couldn’t. His Rooster doesn’t need to reveal the hero inside him to his Mattie. There’s no doubt this Rooster Cogburn has grit. For one thing, as much as the Coens might want us to forget the Wayne movie, at least while we’re watching theirs, it’s still out there and the ghost of John Wayne is going to haunt any Western not just one that features a character he once played. What’s in question isn’t this Rooster’s grit. It’s his commitment to using it to help Mattie.
Bridges doesn’t waste much time before revealing to us the hero inside Rooster. There’s a moment not too long after he and Mattie set out after her father’s killer when he gets ready to draw on a possible threat and twenty years drop away from his figure and face and we find ourselves being stared down upon by a gunslinger as dashing and dangerous as Wild Bill Hickcock who, not coincidentally, Bridges has played.
But because he doesn’t carry Wayne’s baggage as a screen legend, Bridges can also let us see a side to Rooster that try as he did Wayne couldn’t make us believe was a side to his Rooster.
Rooster Cogburn is a United States Marshall but not because he’s a champion of law and order. It’s just what’s paying the rent at that moment. He will and has gone whatever way the money’s flowing and that’s made him a bandit and hired gun at various points in his career as well as a store keeper and a restauranteur and rancher.
In other words, he’s a man out for himself and motivated principally by money.
Never for a moment do we believe that Wayne’s Rooster is going to abandon Mattie. We don’t believe that Bridges’ Rooster will either. But that’s because we have such faith in Steinfeld’s Mattie. We know she won’t let him. But he believes he might. And he believes it right up until the moment when he can’t and then he realizes that he never really had the choice.
Instead of being the story of how Mattie Ross comes to realize that Rooster Cogburn is a hero, the Coens’ True Grit is the story of how Rooster Cogburn comes to realize that Mattie Ross is his own personal heroine.
Which is a way of saying that Rooster has to face up to the fact that True Grit is Mattie’s story.
On the same trail:
Via Sheila O’Malley, Katherine Hepburn’s admiring reflections on John Wayne’s acting, “You Don’t Catch Him At It.”
Fellow Arkansan Gene Lyons says Charles Portis isn’t as elusive as this New York Times piece makes him out to be.
Sigh. Better start calling me Brother Lance.
The first True Grit, starring John Wayne, is available to watch instantly at Amazon.