This is a 3 part review of the Coen Brother’s film, True Grit. I’ll post it over the next 3 days. It is unashamedly meandering. But from the start you and I have a problem. I can’t really write about the film without disclosing information about the plot and resolution. I’ve done my best, and I think you can read the full review without completely working out the end of the story. Mayhap you’ll read this, then watch the movie and get more out of it, or maybe reading this will just spoil the fun. Can’t really tell in advance… I do know that good story-tellers don’t need go-betweens. You should probably watch the film first and then come back and decide if you think I’ve grasped it, or whether it’s wormed past me. Set me straight, if you would.
First, let me confess a deep-rooted and growing predilection for Westerns, a taste I’ve inherited from my Dad, and he from his. Among my earliest movie memories are Clint Eastwood’s hard blue squint, Robert Duvall’s smile (Lonesome Dove), Ennio Morricone’s (maddeningly) unforgettable score toThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. True Grit is formally flawless as a ‘genre’ Western. I left the film with that sense of deep contentment that is uniquely aroused by contemplation of genuine craftsmanship. Like when you hold a really fine, hand-bound book and feel the quality of the materials, the smell of the leather, the texture of the paper, the firm curve of the spine. We hear much drivel about the uniqueness of hand-made products, what makes fine craftsmanship isn’t uniqueness but the honing of material to form. It is the ability of the craftsman to take this particular piece of material and fashion it toward a form, a universal, whether that is a book, a sonnet, or a bœuf bourguignon. The final result has its uniqueness from the peculiarities of the material, but its beauty and craft lies with the skill by which these peculiarities are gathered together for the realisation of the universal. The master craftsman finds a way to make the knot of wood serve the vision of a chair. He only cuts when unavoidable.
The Coen Brothers are the great auteur-craftsmen of English-language cinema. They love to take a peculiar material (story) and work it carefully according to the rules of a genre. In fact, their especial gift has been to take basically the same story and work it according to the rules of many distinct genres, while still preserving both the integrity of the story and the rules of the genre. The story is this: someone gets something they shouldn’t have (money, child, position) which unleashes a chain of relentless causality through which the thing they’ve got may or may not end up destroying them (and everyone around them). The interplay between this relentless causality – the tightly wound narrative spring – and the utter randomness of its path of destruction drive the plot. The Coen Brother’s films almost always inhabit a world of inescapable necessity (fate) but without intrinsic moral order.
This is where things get interesting. Humans have this weird ability to have feelings, dispositions, orientations toward the unplaying of fate. We can find it terribly funny, gut-achingly wrong, satisfyingly right. It is these dispositions toward the outcomes of actions and events that make us wonder about the connection between outcomes and morality (meta-ethics). It is also the source of our fascination with theatre, literature, cinema – those spaces of the imagination which are also the practical workshop of ethics. Our disposition to have certain feelings about the outcome of events in a story even extends to classifying stories according to the connection between necessity and morality. To put it more crudely, we often classify certain kinds of stories on the basis of whether its conceivable for the bad guy to win.
The classic Western displayed one of the firmest and most fundamental commitments to the belief that necessity was married to morality. The good guy wore a white hat. He could be shot at, but never hit. He could be punched, but it would never leave a mark. When the shadows grew long in the streets of Dodge City, he was constitutionally quicker on the draw. His pistols rang with the sound of righteous judgement. This faith that good must triumph over evil, that this triumph is written into creation, was central to the genre. One of the many variations of the quintessentially American ‘prosperity’ theology retrojected into a mythical foundation narrative.
Until Sergio Leone.