New Review of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit

Many readers will be interested in a highly critical review of the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit that has just been published in ANAMNESIS. The review is entitled, “Rooster Redux,” and it is written by Keith Hartzler. The author analyzes the movie’s consistency with the original story in Charles Portis’ famous novel, which has the same title as the movie. Hartzler argues that the Coens fail to include many interesting facets of the book–e.g, themes related to Protestant thought and culture and Southern politics in the wake of the Civil War. Hartzler is also very critical of the apparent postmodernism (and possible nihilism) that the Coens import into the story. According to Hartzler, such problematic skepticism is utterly lacking in Portis’ novel. Unlike Stanley Fish who views the film to be a major success, Hartzler implies that it is closer to a travesty.

When reading Hartzler’s review, I am struck by my conflicting reaction. Although I am sympathetic with his critique, I also enjoy and appreciate many of the Coens’ movies. In fact, I greatly enjoyed True Grit. I suspect many will have a similar dualistic response to the Coens’ film and the Hartzler’s review. The film is well done and enjoyable in many respects, but it is also postmodern and macabre as Hartzler observes. Aside from Hartzler’s beautiful prose and plush insights, his review will inform readers of the “grand canyon” chasm that exists between the movie and the original novel. The latter of which is classic (Southern) Americana.

You can now follow ANAMNESIS on Facebook and Twitter.

8 comments on this post.
  1. Jeff Polet:

    Peter:
    I confess to not having a dualistic response. I am not an admirer of the Coen brothers: I find their movies contemptuously nihilistic and too clever by half. I watched the movie and for the most part sat there scratching my head. I’ve not read the novel, but now I have a better idea why the movie seemed to me so incoherent and fractured. This is really a terrific review.

  2. John Médaille:

    I wish I could agree with this, but I can’t. In the first place, it is not so much a movie review as a comparison of the movie and the book. Can’t comment much on that, since I haven’t read the book. But I think a movie has to be judged on its own merits, even apart from its sources. After all, if faithfulness to the sources was the test of a theatrical presentation, then little of Shakespeare’s corpus would pass the test. People often prefer the book to the movie, and one thing alone is certain: the book is always a better book than the movie is.

    I can compare this to the original movie. That movie was great fun, John Wayne’s parody of John Wayne. But this movie was not “fun”; this was deadly serious, and all the characters had a seriousness that they lacked in the first movie. The “true grit” in this movie was not in the bravado of the final charge, but in the heroic ride to save Mattie’s life, a ride rooted in true affection and true manliness; this combination is what constitutes true grit. This is nihilism? If so, it is a nihilism we must encourage.

    Far from lacking religious overtones, the movie presented Mattie as a ramrod straight Calvinist, and this was the source of her grit, and the audience is meant to sympathize with this.

    The author complains that the background of the Lawrence raid is not given. True, but you can do that sort of thing in a book very easily, but it is often jarring in a movie.

    I confess that I am an admirer of the Coen’s work. Relative to the principles of this journal, they display a fondness for place and limits in movies like Fargo, No Country, O Brother, Raising Arizona, and True Grit, among others. But they also give us an unstinting view of modern life, which is the geography of nowhere. I don’t think you can accuse anyone of nihilism or cynicism for presenting an accurate chart of that featureless landscape.

  3. Peter Daniel Haworth:

    John:
    I appreciate your further insights about the Coens’ True Grit, and you raise some important concerns. However, though Hartzler’s review may be unconventional in primarily focusing on contrasts between the movie and the book, there is great worthiness in this method. Specifically, it reveals the differences in Portis’ and the Coens’ interpretations; moreover, it highlights major contrasts in their evaluative judgments. Whereas, Portis emphasizes how Protestant Christianity permeated the people-groups he addresses in the novel, the Coens cut much of this (e.g., the faith-filled confessions of men before execution) and add macabre scenes that are not compatible with such Protestant Christian culture (e.g., Mattie having to sleep in the morgue with corpses of recently hung men; the strange dental-frontiersman who purchases and desecrates a separate corpse). This does not mean that the Coens’ movie qua movie is bad, but it does suggest a significant interpretative and evaluative differences between them and Portis. The same can be said about Coens’ failure to bring forth Mattie’s Southern Democratic political concerns and Rooster’s Confederate virtues. Based on these considerations, there is true value in Hartzler’s review, and I admire his “grit” in defending the values emphasized in Portis’ original story.

  4. John Haas:

    Thank you, John Médaille! Put beautifully!

  5. Carl Eric Scott:

    John is absolutely right, and the Shakespeare/Original Source(which includes folks like Plutarch) analogy is spot on, because BOTH the Coen Bros adaptation and the Charles Portis novel are major artistic achievements. Portis’ is the greater one, I judge, but both are way up there in their respective genres(novel and film).

    So Hartzler is right to compare the two, and use the comparison to judge the Coens’ choices, but he seems unable to work with the Coens’ achievement on its own terms. Yes, their film diminishes certain aspects of the novel, but it adds others.

    And the overall feel of the film, as John points out, really is truer to the novel than the script-wise far more loyal John Wayne film.

    I have not yet done any reflection on how to compare the film and book, and I heartily recommend Hartzler’essay as a step forward in that demanding exercise, although more demanding than he knows given his underestimation of the film.

    But back at Postmodern Conservative, we had a number of rewarding threads on why the film itself is worthy of careful study. Here’s http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2011/01/16/the-next-level-of-true-grit-studies/the best one. My incomplete insights into the film may be found there, especially in the thread, and they reinforce John’s point about modernity’s geography of nowhere.

  6. Carl Eric Scott:

    that link is flawed

    use this one

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2011/01/16/the-next-level-of-true-grit-studies/

  7. Mark T. Mitchell:

    It might be of interest to note that the Coen brothers explicitly claimed to be making a film based on a book they greatly admired. They also claimed that they didn’t watch the first film version in order not to prejudice their interpretation of the material. In that context, comparing how well they “real-ized” the book seems appropriate.

  8. peter lawler:

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2011/08/19/aristocracy-we-can-half-believe-in/

    More of the postmodern and conservative and so, of course, fair-and-balanced analysis of the two compelling “narratives.”

Leave a comment