"I will not use any contractions while I set out upon the errand that you have suffered upon me."
So says Jeff Bridges as 'Rooster' Cogburn in 'True Grit.' Well, not exactly. But he could have, in a movie whose verbal mise en scene is as significant, and more entertaining and captivating than the visual scene. Truly, one of the highlights of the movie is hearing these grizzled, filthy Westerners speak with a voice that sounds like its slipping out from behind a wad of chaw, yet all the while using a language and diction that's as sophisticated, obscure, and contrived as it is self-reflective and descriptive. This is not cowboy dialect. These characters are remarkably expressive and verbose, sometimes to the point of excess. Instead of John Wayne's drawling, "Well he-yar's whatchur gonna do," we have Josh Brolin (playing Tom Chaney) musing, "I do not know what I shall do now," or something along those lines.
Language has played a major role in the Coen brothers' oeuvre - think about the fast-talking Ulysses Everett McGill in 'O! Brother,' The Dudes' whines and 'Mans,' or Amy Archer in the 'Hudsucker Proxy' as she rattles of words with typewriter efficiency cadence. 'True Grit,' then, and it's unconventional yet appealing linguistics was an easy choice for them to produce. Largely, they've left the story as it is. It's easy, though, to appreciate their initial attraction to the tale and their desire to transcribe it to the screen unmolested (questionable morals, a story of revenge and redemption, etc) as well as note their own peculiar touch. True, 'True Grit' is a straightforward a tale as the Coen's have ever told. But their quirks, humor, and cold-blooded realism shine through, which allows them to present a unique sort of Western. The result isn't a Western of black and white morality, like the kind that John Wayne's frequently associated with, where Injuns were always bad, cowboys were always right, and the main character was heroic with good intentions and got the girl - a Hollywood style of Western that has violence, but de-emphasizes it. It's not a Spaghetti Western either, a 'Man with No Name' sort of production, where the morals and motivations of the characters are ambiguous and generally self-serving and violence is rampant, and meted out randomly.
No, the Coen Brothers' Western is cold, hard, realism. Characters are never totally good or totally bad. Rather, they are complicated - just like in life. Mattie, the only character with 'noble' intentions (letting alone the fact that these intentions involve a revenge killing), is quite stoic and not at all an attractive character; besides her quick wit, there is not much appealing about her. She barely shows any emotion, certainly not in the way of an average fourteen year old girl. We empathize with her quest for revenge, but in the end, we don't feel so much sympathy for the loss of her arm. Cogburn is a bona fide sonavabitch who nearly redeems his life of killing, at least in our eyes, by racing to save Mattie's life. Unfortunately, this deed is tarnished as Cogburn rides Mattie's pony to its breaking point and then shoots it, without remorse; he's not a changed man, just an intricate one who's decided to perform one good deed. Even Chaney, on close inspection, is less an evil villain than we might suppose. Rather, he's a slightly bumbling, slow-witted crook who's committed some evil acts and is stuck on string of bad luck - hardly an evil mastermind. In fact, if we were to morally appraise him and Cogburn, the main difference between the two would be the badge that Cogburn wears - not their actions.
But this is our world. This is the complicated legacy of the West, a theme that the Coen's wish to bring up, at least tangentially. By having the hangman cut off an Indian's last words before he can make a speech, they make us laugh, but it's also the tersest explanation and metaphor of our country's attitude towards Native Americans. They wish to bring to the surface uncomfortable truths and force us to mull them over (and they do so, masterfully, using humor and drama to temper it so that it's not preachy). Thus do they show us how the Wild West ends - not in a blaze of glory, or a shoot out, or a midnight ride to save a young girl's life - but in the kitsch of a Wild West Show, when all the rivalries, all the excitement, all the romance and grit have been reduced to an act.
The Coens cannot resist being themselves, of course, and that is why we love them. So they give us scenes such as the one with Mattie and the Undertaker, where they rehash the indignant response to the price of mortuary services from 'The Big Lebowski' (apparently the Coen's have had a poor experience in a house of bereavement - how else to explain their resentment towards undertakers?). And they can't help from giving winks to previously made Westerns: when Mattie visits the gallows, one of the men about to be hanged gives a speech lifted almost directly, at least in character, from a chap's confession at the gallows in 'Hang 'Em High.'
Just like the West was built on stirring tales of braggadocio and heroism that masked its very violent, lawless, and unpleasant reality, so does the Coen's use of humor allow them to slightly downplay the violent, gritty nature of their tale that ends successfully, but not happily.
I would be remiss not to mention Haillee Steinfeld, the young, enunciative girl who plays Mattie. She is most, most magnificent in that role - apparently the Coens went through something along the order of thousands of girls in order to find the one that was just perfect - and they succeeded. She is the star of the movie, and her performance outshines both Matt Damon (the honorable, easily offended and depressed Texas Marshall La Bouef [pronounced La-Beef]) and Bridges. Her scenes, especially any time that she barters or argues, are arguably some of the best in the entire flick, and I do hope we see more of her in the future - perhaps in another 19th century flick. I could certainly see her playing powerful women in the future - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, maybe, or Susan B. Anthony?
Indeed, the choice of Steinfeld and her performance mirrors much of the rest of the movie: magnificent in every way. When the Coens do a movie, they do it right. The sets are impeccable; Cogburn's bedroom-cum-dried meat storeroom is a favorite of mine, as he moves among various smoked ducks, and joints of ham, and other unidentified meats that drape from the ceiling. The score is excellent, and the camera shots evoke the loneliness of the West, the obscurity of a time when one could wander into Choctaw Territory and be completely disconnected from the world. This is a genuinely good movie done well in nearly every way, and I heartily recommend it.