If the Oscar for best actor depends largely on the character portrayed, I'd be voting for an over-the-hill, drunken, one-eyed US deputy marshal rather than a stuttering king. John Wayne won his only Oscar for his bravura portrayal of Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn and the same role has put Jeff Bridges in the running this year. Yet the murderous lawman is not the central figure in True Grit. Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old farm girl who hires Cogburn to bring in her father's killer, is both protagonist and narrator of the yarn.
Charles Portis's fertile novel from 1968 has been compared to Mark Twain and Daisy Ashford. Praise could come no higher. In every detail of time, place and action, it is a convincing depiction of 1870s Arkansas as recalled from a distance of 40 years by a resolute, eye-for-an-eye Presbyterian. Filled to the brim with the Old Testament, Mattie is fearless and ferocious. Humour is not his strong suit but she faithfully records it in others. Her fierce determination is first made evident when she forces a dealer to take back horses he sold to her father. "You will find a buyer for the ponies," she says after recovering $325. The dealer replies: "I have a tentative offer of ten dollars per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock." The courtly language of the characters is precise, vivid and articulate like very few Westerns but like many Victorian novels.
Their deadpan exchanges explain why the Coen brothers, professional prospectors for black humour, chose to re-make True Grit. The story is undeniably gripping with violence erupting from nowhere, as it often does in life. The lives of the characters may be nasty, brutish and short, but Cogburn achieves reluctant redemption as he honours his contract with the girl. He is still a considerable distance from being a saint. Cogburn's plan for trapping a gang shocks a fellow bounty hunter. "I will kill the last one to go in." "You will shoot him in the back?" "It will give them to know our intentions is serious."
By contrast, the murderer of Mattie's father expresses misgivings. "I regret that shooting. Mr Ross was decent to me but he ought not to have meddled in my affairs." Though the Coens' film is said to stick very closely to the book, here it reverses the original to sharpen our desire for revenge: "I do not regret killing your father." The productive and brilliant Coens will know what they're doing, but it is a step away from the blurry morality of Portis's slender, hugely enjoyable masterpiece. CH