A Coen brothers film based on the novel rather than the 1969 film starring John Wayne. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfield) is the daughter of a murdered employer of Tom Cheney, so she wants him hanged. She hires the reluctant Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) whom she meets in the courthouse where he battles with the lawyer trying to get at the truth about a shooting. She heads out with him into Indian territory (this is 1878) with Leboeuf, a Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon. They track down the gang Cheney is with and he is killed. Mattie loses her arm from a snakebite, Cogburn tries to save her arm, getting her back to civilization as quickly as possible. We see Mattie at the end of the film finding out about what happened to Cogburn.
What’s puzzled me about this film is why some critics have wondered at the point of making it. It’s a story and films are about stories. Jeff Bridges is a different Cogburn from Wayne, he drawls inarticulately and seems shrewdly ambivalent later in accompanying Mattie out to the wilderness. The search and pursue party is a constant of westerns, it’s all about the searchers finding out about themselves through the ordeal of the wilderness. The setting itself is a harsh snowy landscape, all sepulchrally bare trees and various shades of dust brown, this is not Remington’s more opulent vision of nature that are in his paintings. The trees bear swaying corpses and the backdrop is visually bizarre, like the rider in a bearskin who looks like a bear riding a horse. This I think is a nod towards Jeremiah Johnston a reminder that even in the 1870’s the west was still a vast wilderness for whites. Nature is a mirage which is skirted with ambush and violence. There is no real claim to visual originality, more an untameable quirkiness which resists moral expectations. Violence is a sudden bitter flourish in gesture and face. A man’s fingers are chopped off, Laboeuf nearly bites his own tongue off, a snakebite blackens an arm, night camps are protected by ropes which keep the snakes away, brutality will do what it can when the chance arises, there is a hanging in the town of Fort Smith at the beginning of the film.
All this is in contrast to the peculiarly florid and biblical language that the protagonists (especially Mattie) use. It’s as if the harshness and brutality can be endured by a florid turn of phrase like engraving a chrysanthemum on a samurai sword. There is deftness about phrase making and argument, Mattie does business easily and persuades tough men to ride with her. She will not be dismissed, her precocity excites their resentment and erotic insolence: Laboeuf administers a spanking. She does not have to resort to the familiar tactics of sentiment, she forces these hardbitten frontiersmen to act on her terms and in doing so sets up a macho contest between Labeouf and Cogburn. Each probes the other’s weaknesses, though Cogburn is better at concealing his, finally forcing Labeouf into an initially reluctant mentoring role for Mattie. Civilization of course is thrown into very dubious relief. In general, western films are resentful of the spread of urban life even as they thrive on the cut throat individualism of its capitalist dynamism. There is a real, uneasy sort of fascist eulogizing of wildness which usually needs a narrative of resentment to give it coherence otherwise it would just be a National Geographic look at the Iron Man. The resentment appears when an idiosyncratically cultivated mysticism is violated by capitalist servility, the spread of civilized mores, or ugly industrialism. These come out in the Coens’ film. I detest the Coens’ fascination with violence and physical oddity, but in this film they have found their true calling, they out Peckinpah Sam Peckinpah.
This is a reminder of those 1970’s westerns which showed the west from a worm’s eye view: the alkali dust, the longueurs of rural life, the shear life-corroding harshness of the frontier, the moronic thuggishness of the formerly romanticized villains. The sepia tinted myths were getting a makeover. The Coens have not exactly rejected the sepias and there is still the unrealistic silliness of the their gunfights, but it could be the Coens are factoring in their own cinematic mythmaking into this story. Now westerns have to be comments about the western as they try to recreate life in the wild frontier. In that respect this is a somewhat old fashioned western, although there are acknowledgements of 1970’s attempts at realism, there is mainly a direct line to the westerns of the 30’s to the 60’s where the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats and there is no probing into what makes a guy good or bad.