True Grit: A Cool Summer Read and Movie

14 year-old Mattie Ross has just got herself a place on my short list of favorite fictional heroines, alongside Elizabeth Bennet. Come to think of it, if Jane Austen were to write a Western novel, I’m sure she’d have created a character like Mattie Ross, determined, principled, curious, fearlessly independent, her heart sincere and her morals strong.


Kudos must go to author Charles Portis, who has described with succinct and flowing prose the captivating adventure of Mattie Ross. It’s a hero’s journey, but Mattie is no reluctant heroine. No more than a child, she hires the meanest of them all, Marshal Rooster Cogburn in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and goes with him, against his strong objection, to hunt down Tom Chaney, the killer of her father.

Portis’s storytelling is alluring and comedic, capturing my attention from the opening lines. The vision of 14 year-old Mattie is clear and crisp. Reminiscing as an adult now, her voice is vivid and affective. I’m won over soon by her articulate dealing in the adult world, protecting her own interest and yet still pouring out the heart of a child. Portis’s description is lucid, at times eloquent, and at times, deadpan humorous. His characters come alive with their vernacular dialogues of the American South after the Civil War. Many of the pages are script-ready for their cinematic effects.

I admit this is my first Western novel if my memory serves me correctly. My other one in the Western genre is Elmore Leonard’s short story “3:10 to Yuma” which I read after watching the movie. Here the reason is similar. I waited in a long line of holds from the public library for this book because of the fine movie adaptation I’d seen. The Coen brothers’ soulful rendition of True Grit (2010) got me curious… I just wonder how much of the movie is their creation, and how much is the author’s own.

I’m totally surprised to learn from reading the novel that the remake of “True Grit” is mostly a faithful adaptation of Portis’s novel. Not that I’m concerned it needs be accurately transposed, for I don’t expect movies to go the fidelity route anymore. But that’s exactly my surprise, that the Coen brothers have stayed with the plot and character development, and derived their scene sequences almost to the dot, unlike the 1969 John Wayne flick, which has changed the ending totally.

Not only that, under Joel and Ethan Coen’s direction, the movie is imbued with soul and heart. The Biblical quotes and allusions in Portis’s novel are eloquently woven into the narration and music of the film, something that’s missing in the 1969 version. The leitmotif of “Leaning On the Everlasting Arm” is deadpan ironic in the ending, albeit instilling meaning throughout. Without their leaning on each other they would not have overpowered Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and the bandits with whom he takes cover, and definitely would not have survived at the end.

In True Grit, characters make the movie. The film is spot-on in depicting the dynamics of the man-hunt trio, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Hailee Steinfeld is a natural, and owns the role of tough and precocious Mattie, deservedly receiving a Best Actress Oscar nom at this year’s Academy Awards. At 13, Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role.  Just one year later, she has landed at the Oscars.

Portis’s intricate portrayal of the threesome in the novel is sensitively transposed visually on screen. The common goal in capturing a killer supersedes any rivalry between the two men in front of a 14 year-old girl, who has got both of them “pretty well figured”. One day when he has a sober minute to look back to his drunken, drifting life, Rooster would likely credit this episode of his journey with Mattie to capture the coward Tom Chaney as the most rewarding. The girl has gotten and drawn out the best of him.

First published in 1968, the book has since become a modern American classic. Some have compared it with Huckleberry Finn. But it has been neglected in subsequent years until the 2010 Coen brothers’ adaptation came out. It has garnered 10 Oscar noms earlier this year, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Now we see the fresh reprints by The Overlook Press, New York. Thanks to the movie, the once overlooked book is back in print and on the new and popular shelves in bookstores, even now months after the Oscars.

Ah yes… books and movies, still the best summer treats.

True Grit by Charles Portis, published by The Overlook Press, NY. 2010, with Afterword by Donna Tartt, 235 pages.

Book and Movie:

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Appaloosa (2008)

Yes, they’re still making westerns. The plots are still generic. Lawmen upholding the law in a lawless land. So what’s new?

What’s new is the fine tuning of characterization, the focus on internal conflicts and dilemmas, and the more stylistic and agile camera works, the music, and the slower, almost meditative pace of story development. I have in mind Open Range (2003), and the recent 3:10 to Yuma (2007).

… And at the Globe where the movie was screened, among the full house attendance at the Calgary International Film Festival, some enthusiasts even dressed western for the occasion.

Ed Harris has proved that he is versatile as an actor and director (Pollack, 2000), and now as a screenwriter. He is all three in Appaloosa. Based on the book by Robert B. Parker, Appaloosa is a typical western buddy movie.  Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his sidekick Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen, with Harris in A History of Violence, 2005) are two “itinerant lawmen”.  They are hired this time by the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy, to get rid of the lawless rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his gang.  The twists begin to emerge when a young widow shows up in town.  Allie French (Renée Zellweger) is so alone, so vulnerable, that she has her eye on the tough marshal Cole as soon as she enters town.

The buddy duo has some adjustment to make with this sudden appearance of a third party.  With a woman in his life, Cole himself has become vulnerable and is soon confronted with the dilemma: woman or duty.  Well that’s just one of the several twists of the story, a plot that takes its time to unfold.

As much as I like Renée Zellweger, I find her portrayal of Allie French less than satisfactory. There is definitely a miscast here. It takes more than just acting to bring out the sly femme fatale persona… her look and demeanour just do not reflect the menacing shrewdness and seductive lure needed here. It is unfortunate that Zellweger is cast into a role that she simply does not look the part.

But the movie is still enjoyable just the same. It is slick, funny, clever, and entertaining. Overall the acting is superb, but it is Viggo Mortensen who steals the show. As the quiet, and very intelligent sidekick of Virgil Cole, Everett Hitch has been more than supportive of his buddy. He is Cole’s vocabulary teacher, attentive listener and counsellor, and at the end, fulfills what justice and honor require a man to do, something which Cole himself has neglected. Mortensen has delivered a most gratifying performance which I think deserves an Oscar nomination.

At the end, after twists and turns, the hero rides off into the sunset, a typical conclusion. But this time, we are reminded why we come to see a western to begin with.  Such is the kind of movies where honor and nobility of character is expected of the protagonist, and that the good still wins, and justice served.  How satisfying.  Maybe that is why they are still making westerns, knowing there is an insatiable yearning for such ideals which are beyond time and genre.

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