As Oscar night approaches, I am going to repost a few film reviews I wrote originally for Cahiers Péguy, with thanks to my colleagues there. The first is for “True Grit,” my favorite for Best Picture, although I suspect that “The King’s Speech” will win.
We declared our independence a few years ago, but where movies are concerned, we still kowtow to the Brits. Why shouldn’t a quintessentially American film win the top U.S. awards? Let’s call British films “Foreign” from now on, OK?
The French have St. Joan. We Americans, in this secular season, will have to settle for Mattie Ross, and she’s plenty good for me. In the new movie version of “True Grit” by filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, Mattie is a heroine for our time. Canonization is unlikely for a fictional character, but we Christians have to look for the glint of gold wherever we can spot it in the cultural muck. Any film that begins with an epigraph from Proverbs 28:1—“The evil flee when none pursue”—then expands on this theme for 110 minutes, already stands out.
Near the end of the Hundred Years War, when the English and their allies were marauding France, a 17-year-old Joan of Arc heard voices telling her to ride across the country and lead the Dauphin into battle so that he could regain the crown. A simple shepherdess who couldn’t ride a horse, Joan convinced an armed guard in the regional city of Vaucouleurs to accompany her, then led the Dauphin’s army to a string of victories before being burned at the stake before the age of 20.
The Coen brothers’ 14-year-old heroine learns of her virtuous father’s murder and arrives in a dusty western town with more killers than lawmen in order to settle her father’s affairs. This involves some hard bargaining with the merchant who sold her father a pair of ponies, then let the murderer flee on her father’s horse. It also means convincing the meanest, drunkenest bounty hunter, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to escort her on horseback into Choctaw territory, where her father’s killer has fled. Eventually, this odd couple is joined by a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) with the French surname LaBoeuf (pronounced “Le Beef”).
One of many wonders about Joan of Arc is how she retained her virginity while riding hundreds of miles with an armed male escort. Chances are she was a lot like Mattie, as played by Hailie Steinfeld and directed by the Coens, who also adapted Charles Portis’s novel. (The 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne as Cogburn, Kim Darby as Mattie, and Glen Campbell as LeBoeuf.) Sporting long, tight braids and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and full-length black dress that covers everything from her neck to her boots, Mattie speaks like one of CS Lewis’s Narnia children as raised by a Methodist circuit rider. Her language is polished, precise, and Biblical. What other teen in today’s movies would say that she felt “like Ezekiel in the place of dry bones”? Yet she is not afraid to stare a man down and tell him to go to hell. Her final line, delivered years later to the head of a Wild West Show who fails to stand for a lady, is “Keep your seat, trash.” My favorite line combines faith and grit, and I am paraphrasing: “The Lord protects the righteous,” Mattie says in a voice-over, “and I had a good horse.”
Spoiler alert: Mattie does not die at the stake, although she suffers her own acute form of martyrdom. The final scenes again show Coen cinematographer Richard Deakins at his most majestic, especially in Mattie’s long, slow recessional before the credits roll. Minnesota natives, the Coens have an eye, and a place in their hearts, for the American steppe. Remember the windblown winter highway scenes in “Fargo”? The Southwestern silhouetted landscapes of “No Country for Old Men”? There’s much more where that came from in “True Grit.”
Parent alert: There is violence here, and the PG-13 rating is honestly earned. But the heroine is 14 and young teens should learn from her heroism and especially her character, as long as they can stomach sights like a Bowie knife severing a man’s fingers then being thrust into his chest, or a nest of rattlesnakes swarming inside a long-dead carcass. The language is rough but never obscene, the harshest words often coming from Mattie’s mouth.