At the Movies

Michael Wood

‘Pastoral scene of the gallant South’, Billie Holiday sang, evoking a landscape of lynched bodies. This was the ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’. Certainly a dark version of pastoral but well within the mode’s capacities. If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and what William Empson called the trick of simplification was always the thing. The mode kept remembering what it was ostensibly getting rid of.

Charles Portis’s funny and violent novel True Grit (1968) is the perfect pastoral of the ungallant west. It presents a world mockingly simplified to its extreme elements, as if the western’s dream of a time before the law brought order and civilisation to a (supposedly) empty country was being fulfilled even beyond the dream’s requirements. Here lawlessness is not so much a historical condition as a utopian promise, and when the one-eyed US marshal ‘Rooster’ Cogburn is asked in a law court how many people he has shot in his four years in the job, he first needs to know what the questioner means. ‘Shot or killed?’ he asks. Cogburn says he has killed 12 or 13 people in the line of duty; then, when pushed, revises his estimate to 23. This would be a good score for the worst bandit, and it may be more shocking that the marshal is still guessing. But is anyone in the novel shocked? No, and least of all the 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who is looking for a man to help her find the man who killed her father. She has heard that Cogburn has ‘true grit’, and the figures seem to prove it. This is not just the west as it never was – all westerns, whether novels or movies, give us that. This is more western than even the fictional west is supposed to be.

It’s quite easy to miss the joke here, and that was what the first movie version of the novel did – or perhaps it chose not to take up the joke’s challenge. Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film had rich, bright colours, National Park scenery with snow-capped mountains, long shots of little log cabins nestling in lonely valleys, a fulsome ‘western’ score by Elmer Bernstein, reminding us of dozens of movie trips to the unpopulated wilds, and even a sentimental folksy song delivered over the credits by Glen Campbell, who had a role in the movie. It also had John Wayne at a late stage in his career, converting Cogburn into a genial version of a grizzled movie star acting tough while showing his heart of gold. Wayne got an Oscar for this performance, although ‘performance’ perhaps isn’t quite the word.

Seen again now, the film doesn’t seem as bad as I remembered it being, and it has touches of genuine darkness. The hanging scene taken from the novel is discreet, but the sense of the country fair is still strong and sinister and the inclusion of children on swings quite close to the scaffold certainly catches a pastoral tone of entertainment, as does the reminder that the local hotel is full because so many people are in town to watch the executions.

But there is nothing in the film that resembles the dry, prim wit of Portis’s narrator, who is Mattie at a later stage in her life. Thinking of the hanging judge who became a Catholic, the strictly Presbyterian Mattie says: ‘If you had sentenced 160 men to death and had seen around 80 of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need of some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make.’ When she first sees Cogburn, she describes him as ‘an old one-eyed jasper that was built along the lines of Grover Cleveland’, following up with the comment: ‘Some people will say, well, there were more men in the country at that time who looked like Cleveland than did not. Still, that is how he looked.’ Forced by the bandits who capture her to forge a signature, she has no taste for the task but does it well. ‘It is not in me to do poor work where writing is concerned’ – and indeed she never does. Finally faced with the man who killed her father, she says, ‘You may readily imagine that I registered shock at the sight of that squat assassin’; and when the bandits are defeated she notes that ‘no doubt they were surprised and not a little disconcerted by the interesting development.’ Every word is perfectly in place, and her unperturbed fussiness in this world represents a form of courage. Mattie is the comically extreme version of the woman as civilising influence in the old west: only 14 and already able to boss everyone around, especially the rugged individuals so infatuated with their own independence.

The Coen brothers’ new film restores Mattie to the narrative; it gives her a voice-over and quotes her a lot. The actress who plays her (Hailee Steinfeld) and the designer who dressed her (Mary Zophres) get across a good deal more of the weirdness of this prematurely old child than Kim Darby in the earlier film could ever quite do, in spite of her consistent, energetic engagement with the part. Steinfeld’s long pigtails, too large hat, earnest stare and cautious articulate diction give her an eerie dignity, an authority undiluted by anything as tame as charm: this really is a performance.

The film looks different too: all browns and golds and scruffy interiors; firelight in the evening, and a dusty glow coming through windows by day. There are fine shots of the great outdoors, but the human figures are often lost among trees, and the wider landscapes are flattened out. It’s all mildly hostile, has none of the grandeur of isolation, which is the message old westerns were always peddling – as if everyone in the crowded cinema secretly longed for a sublime and desolate night or two away from it all.

We come much closer to the hangings; the two white men among the condemned get to make speeches, while the Indian just has a black sack pulled unceremoniously over his face. And above all we have Jeff Bridges in place of John Wayne. The two men don’t look all that different: shabby and decaying and old, far older than the character in the book can be, if he dies at the age of 68 and the story takes place a quarter of a century before that. But Bridges is a riskier proposition than Wayne. He feels like a dangerous man, seriously out of control, not playing at decrepitude and disorder. And his continuing quarrels with Matt Damon, the Texas Ranger also out to catch the killer of Mattie’s father, although for different reasons, are genuinely competitive and angry, portraits of double insecurities masquerading as bravado and prowess. There is a terrific scene (also in the novel), where they both try to demonstrate their skill with a gun, and repeatedly miss the targets they keep tossing into the air.

Still, the film is finally more gothic than pastoral, not a parody of a western but an exploration of more diffuse American behaviours. What we see in the triple relation of the girl and the two men, and in their encounters with the bandits in the wild, has nothing much to do with Portis’s shrewd mockery of our ready-made violent fictions, and everything to do with the Coen brothers’ continuing interest in persons living on the edge of a world we think we know. Here, as in A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men, we cross into the realm of the unaccountable, and if the plot happens to find its way home to a resolution, that too is an illustration of unaccountability, just one of those lucky things. The Coens’ devotion to this perspective is made clear in the one serious change they have made to Portis’s storyline. In the novel and the movie Mattie comes upon her father’s killer, the squat assassin, by accident when she goes to fetch water. But in the novel this happens because the incompetent Cogburn has pitched camp far closer to the bandits’ hideout than he knows. In the movie, they have lost the trail, and both men, to Mattie’s despair, have decided to give up. The bandits are too far away from them, uncatchable now. It is precisely at this moment, just after the abandonment of the chase, that she meets the killer. The story is over; the story starts up again. A sort of miracle; or a reminder that movie writers are masters of chance.