Sunday, March 27, 2011
True Grit, from Joel and Ethan Coen, is a western that tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage girl who enlists two bounty hunters to track down her father’s killer. The bounty hunters are Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)and a Texas Ranger known simply as “LaBoeuf” (Matt Damon).
One of the first scenes involving Rooster Cogburn is a criminal trial where he is acting as a witness. I’m not sure how accurate the depiction of late-nineteenth century American western criminal court proceeding is, but it was interesting to see how similar the one in this film is to our modern day courts. For instance, the prosecutor uses the “dying declaration” exception to a hearsay objection. In fact, all of the objection I heard are still in use today. The relative lawlessness of the period becomes apparent in the testimony of Cogburn. It seems that he caught an unarmed man by surprise and shot him dead. However, as the attorney Barlow points out, the Marshall is not even on trial. I get the impression that it was easy to get away with murder in the old west. Later in the film, there are arguments over jurisdiction and other legal issues. LaBoeuf even explains the meaning of Malum in se. We forget how much jurisprudence had developed even in this remote time and place.
The Coens make a point to tell this story entirely from Mattie's perspective. They often shot scenes from her point of view. There are two POV shots in particular that stand out because I don't remember ever seeing anything like them before. They are both scenes in which unknown characters are approaching the party. The first is a scene where Mattie is high up in a tree and two people are talking below. Almost the entire exchange of dialog is shot from the perspective of the tree and the voices are so faint that the audience cannot make out what is being said. The second scene is one where LaBoeuf is in danger and Mattie is watching from a distance. Again, only snippets of dialog can be heard. This technique accomplishes two things. First, it creates suspense because the audience wants to know what is happening and is worried about the characters. Second, it forces the audience to sympathize with Mattie because we are seeing and hearing (and thus feeling) everything that she does.
The Coens strike just the right tone here. There’s comic relief but unlike some American westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, the comedy comes from witty exchanges and one-liners instead of slapstick or broad caricatures (aside from one scene that involves a shooting contest). The subtlety works better and the audience is never taken out of the story. Also, the tone is progressive. It starts out somewhat light-hearted and darkens toward a violent conclusion.
There aren’t many modern westerns to compare it to, but True Grit stands above the two best recent examples that I have seen, The Assasination of Jesse James and 3:10 to Yuma. The period Western is a new genre for the Coen brothers to venture into but it has resulted in yet another success for them.