The American West is the closest this nation comes to the founding hero myths that ripple through other nations’ cultures. The cowboy with his trusty horse, ten gallon hat, and sparkling six shooter proudly looms next to the Arthurian Knights, the Japanese samuari, the Germanic Fairy Supermen, etc. et. al. As such, the Cowboy myth covers up downright mean-spirited drunken murder, cowardice, not to mention the systematic Government genocide of this Continent’s Native peoples.
It’s worth a mention that in the Western genre the Native American Indian, while usually named by tribe, serves a dichotomous purpose – either as a Noble Savage with hippie communions and near superpowers over nature or as the grunting Redskin devil intent on stealing and raping white skinned wagon train virgins. These two threads varied depending on dominant cultural trends of the times.
Not that there are many, only really two, Native Americans in the Coen Brothers’ remake of the John Wayne Oscar-winning film TRUE GRIT. Aside from the one hanged early in the movie, the other we get is a cipher, a Charon ferry man marking the entry into the otherworld uncivilized frontier. While the criminal Indian is not allowed to speak his last words, hooded into silence while the white men blubber, the frontier Indian speaks with another sort of silence, a shotgun boom notwithstanding, to Rooster. It’s the language of men, a hard stare, a life of sleeping on dirt and keeping the snakes at bay with a circle of rope.
The sole artfulness of the flick exists in this brief set of scenes, this frontier crossing, invented extra-textually from the Charles Portis novel the Brothers Coen are so proudly heralding as their film’s singular distinction. (Everyone making a remake feels the need to justify their remake as something generously better, re-imagined, and stricter to the original intent. That really insults everyone, everywhere!)
As the brush clears, Mattie and Rooster, now firmly established and on their way, amble upon the entry way beyond which is the strangeness, danger and revenging murder of Mattie’s adventure. They meet the hanged man (because it turns out Rooster does not know that man), more savagely strung up than the remorseful criminals brought to justice in town. Mattie makes the journey to cut him down, a metaphor to the heights of morality from which she looks down on the men of ill character she has been necessitated (climbed on a limb) to associate.
It is from this height, too, that she watches as Rooster and the pack animal, roving Indian exchange their words and their body bargain (corpse for shotgun warning). And who emerges from the underbrush, amid the swirl of snow, is a bear riding a horse. A fantastically heavily loaded image, that is at once terrifying and whimsical and threatening and comforting. That Bear Man on a Horse seems to have wandered out of the black and white tableau of Jim Jarmusch’s DEAD MAN, another meta-western filmed as iconic fever dream. The Bear Man, a white man, whose gnarled speech is as comical as is what he says. His snarling voice, a jangle, rings on about dentistry and the territory. He sits there as an absurd transitional figure mocking the spiritual corruption of Western medicine, a corruption that will ultimately occur to Mattie’s righteous revenge as well. For the audience is told that everything that happens past this Bear Man, happens in an uncivilized, untamed elsewhere. And the rules are different there.
But the Bear Man, also, brings to the forefront the Coens’ fetish with language sounds. They seem to build the movies up from accents (FARGO), use of slang or phrases (MILLER’S CROSSING, BIG LIEBOWSKI), lyrics and music (O BROTHER), I vaguely remember a quote from them saying as much about FARGO.
So TRUE GRIT is all about language, really. First there is the silly growl of Rooster Cogburn (which really delightfully upset the people behind us). Second the rollicking whip smart tongue of Mattie Ross. Third, the tongue bit lisp of laBoeuf (mis-pronounced as the typically Americanized – Le Beef). Not to mention, the slow mealy mouth of the murderous simpleton, Tom Chaney. This is before the mention of the whole return to the authenticity of the Portis novel, a textual language celebrated by Donna Tartt’s new introduction.
Aside from all the posturing and reading that can be done with the movie, it does work as an enjoyable western. And for all of us who love the dust and six gun glory of the American knights in long coats, leaving a trail of bodies as they riding off into the sunset, their chiseled jaws set in stoic resignation, TRUE GRIT is a great return to form.