True Grit

True Grit

And Honest Storytelling

This is going to really upset some people, but I'll say it anyway- I don't like John Wayne. I never have. I see the John Wayne approach to the Western movie as being fundamentally dishonest, myth-as-propaganda instead of myth-as-truthtelling. The whole point of a John Wayne Western movie, it seems to me, is to present a skewed and false version of the Old West in support of a skewed and false version of what modern America should be.

That's not why I love the Coen brothers' remake of “True Grit,” but it has something to do with it. They basically took the John Wayne version and retold it so that the Rooster Cogburn character is a realistic and believable version of a Western gunman/lawman- casually violent, ruthless, endlessly talkative but surprisingly human. The complexity and subtlety of their storytelling is in top form in this movie, with characterization and dialogue so close to perfect as to leave me mildly stunned.

 

In many scenes, they manage to comment without ever preaching, without actually commenting as such. The main character is a girl named Mattie who hires Rooster to avenge her father. She picks Rooster specifically because he is known as “a pitiless man,” but then she sees it up close and personal. Rooster needs to question some Indians they meet, so he just knocks them around as casually as if they weren't even human beings. But Rooster isn't being deliberately or consciously cruel- he has the capacity for human feeling and empathy. It's just that Rooster is a man of violence from his head to his toes, and the Indians don't have any power so he has no need to treat them respectfully. He wants answers and he wants them now, and the quickest way to get those answers is to make sure the people he's asking are good and scared.

 

The Coens don't tell you how to feel about this. There's no pat moral. They just present the scene as a matter of fact, and it's a jarring moment. If he was simply a villain, we would know how to feel. But Rooster Cogburn isn't a villain. He's an old, lonely man whose only trade is his willingness to fight and kill. On a moment to moment basis, he's oddly likeable.

 

Great writers don't tell us what to think. Instead they show us complex truths. That's exactly what the Coen brothers have done in this movie, and that's why it's far superior to any Western from the John Wayne era.