The film True Grit, directed by the Coen Brothers in 2010, is a western film that can most certainly be portrayed as a revisionist western in that the general cinematography brings forth a darker feel, with more realistic elements, straying away from the typical romantic feel of classic westerns.
1. The general iconography in True Grit evokes a more realistic, rugged feeling from its audience. A classic western often portrays the protagonists as clean-cut individuals, as in Stagecoach, with all the bells and whistles to convey the nobility of their intentions.
Though, the head marshal Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, lies on the opposite side of the spectrum (much like Eastwood in Fistful): his general attire consists of tattered cloths and stained jackets. He wears an eye patch that pronounces his imperfections; his faults. In fact the directors first introduce the marshal in a court room where he appears to be being rightfully convicted of excessive authoritative force. Even in the formality of a court room, Roster wears a wrinkled–poorly assembled–suit and sits in a manner that implies disgust; his hair is contained by the grease that looks as though it has been accrued through weeks of neglect.
Everything the marshal wears, implores a feeling of distrust and dishonesty, yet it is him, the audience must rely on to concur the greater evil.
The main character, Mattie Ross is a figure of nobility–consistently questioning the marshal and his seemingly harsh methods. Though, rather than wearing warm, brightly colored dresses with complex patterns to perhaps suggest spiritual wealth, she is almost always wearing a head-to-toe austere collared dress that is almost disheartening in its blandness. Her hair does not flow lusciously down her back but rather it is always braided, and hangs lifelessly on either shoulder. Whereas her attire does in fact give the viewer the sense that she has an acute moral compass, as well as a “proper” way of pursuing her goals, it does so in a way that casts a more realistic perhaps even pessimistic veil over her heroic nature.
It is not just the costume choices that encompass the films revisionist intentions. It’s everything: The guns in the movie are unpolished and rusted by what seems to be years of overuse. The forests consist of bare trees, spaced out from one another, about as full of life as the desert that is host to the hero’s journey. The buildings are vaguely furnished and creak due to their poor construction. Any given shot is saturated with the reassurance that this is not a pleasant journey by any means.
2. The characters themselves are even more of a backbone to the revisionist aspects to the film. As stated before Rooster Cogburn is presented as someone who–at first glance–seems to be a villain: he is lethargic in manner, slurred speech, has a certain disregard to all things but his own state. Very similar to the style that Eastwood continually displays throughout all of his western movies. The trail itself seems to be a point/counter-point debate as to how justice ought to be served, his stand point being by whatever means necessary according to him.
His first significant encounter with Mattie is him in a bed suited for a small child, him below her, marinating in his own filth in the back of some sort of shaggy market. Everything he says or does begs for moral critique and ridicule. It is not until about a third of the way into the film that he resentfully exposes an element of decency: Texas Ranger Laboeuf, played by Matt Damon is mercilessly beating Mattie. With what has been given to the audience, it is nature to expect the marshal to watch emotionlessly, though their (the audiences) developing understanding as to who Rooster Cogburn is shaken, as he raises his revolver to LaBoeuf, silently demanding he stop.
Mattie Ross is well put together girl who seeks to avenge her father. The ambitious and ruthless manner in which she goes about this seems paradoxical to her precise and canty nature. She makes no mistakes. Her quick-witted responses to all that doubt her for her unintimidating stature seem premeditated; leaving her mouth with a fluidity that is laced with impeccable logic that leaves her confronters dumbfounded and awestruck. She is by no means helpless, and proves herself to be the needed brains for the journey further solidifying the revisionist-like aspects to this almost unorthodox western. Whereas the hero of traditional classic westerns often appears to have all that is needed to defeat injustice, it seems as though Rooster and Mattie together make up the hero.
With the exception of Mattie, all of the characters–both good and bad– in the film appear to be hardly distinguishable from one another. That meaning that although some may be “worse” than other, everyone seems to have some sort of underlying selfish intention. This to me screams out realism as it casts aside the romantics of having a pure character that pursues justice for its intrinsic good.
3.The technical elements of True Grit are most definitely the strongest indicators of a revisionist western. The high-key lighting is of the highest contrast whenever the opportunity presents itself. Every night when the heroes camp, the screen is almost black (low-key) with a vastness that leaves the audience lost in the midst of hopelessness and doubt with nothing in sight but the vague campfire glow casted on the fatigued faces of Roster Mattie and Laboeuf. The days are musty with soft pale colors that beg for a life-filled tree to present itself, though it never does leaving Rooster to fill the immense emptiness with contempt and cheap whiskey. Classic westerns fill the screen with light and unprecedented hope, letting the audience feel as if salvation is underway and that even in the darkness of night, the hero perseverance is present. As in Stagecoach, everyone always knew John Wayne would walk away unscathed.
The shots for the most part are at a straight-on angle, perhaps a sign of equality in that no single character is by any means greater than another. A low-angled shot on the protagonist characters may surface a feeling of nobility and power, though as mentioned before, everyone has their own selfish intentions. The music–if even present– is minimal and simplistic, as if to say that what there is to see on screen brings forth all the feelings that are supposed to be experienced by the viewer. The non-diegetic sounds added, in my opinion, either very little or very much varying from scene to scene. In short, rather than having consistent high-key lighting with low angle shots that look up at Rooster accompanied by triumphant stringed instruments as he defeats injustice, True Grit captures the journey from the standpoint of those who walk it, and the journey is dark, quiet and exhausting.
4.Rooster and Mattie are a team. Not a team in the sense of a quarterback and a wide receiver; both needed for the ultimate goal with one often depicted as “more essential”. But a team in the sense of Yin and Yang: two conflicting energies that seem to bash heads though could not make do without the other. Throughout the entire film, Mattie is questioning and often protesting Roosters methods. Rooster, resentful to acknowledge the undeniable benefit of having Mattie, lives by his own rules, and will not be governed by anything or anyone but himself. Though, Mattie insists that their ultimate goal be met not in the manner that she sees appropriate, but in a manner that can be deemed morally permissible. In addition, there are multiple instances where Rooster would not have been able to progress in his journey had it not been for Mattie. Likewise Mattie would not achieve anything had it not been for Rooster and yet both seem to be unappreciative, resentful even of the others presence. That being said, it is quite unorthodox to have the demise of a single foe to be contingent on the balance of two protagonist characters as opposed to the all-knowing, all powerful and noble hero.
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