No call to get snippy with Fargo

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

If I had one problem with Fargo (1996), the crime / thriller / comedy / drama movie written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, it was that it was over too soon.  Fargo creates a strange, mesmerizing world that’s set amid the white winter wastes of North Dakota and Minnesota and that rings with the music of the inhabitants’ whimsical speech patterns (“Yah, you betcha!”).  It’s a bleak and cruel world where a hapless shmuck with no aptitude for criminality (William H. Macy) tries his hand at criminality anyway and gets mercilessly punished for it, with bad luck and his own incompetence landing him in an ever-deepening morass of violence and bloodshed.  But it’s simultaneously a cozy and life-affirming world where the whole vicious mess is sorted out by a resourceful and heavily pregnant policewoman (Francis McDormand) whose most aggressive line is a schoolmarm-ish “You’ve no call to get snippy with me!”

 

I found Fargo’s world so captivating that I felt disappointed when after 98 minutes it ended – though admittedly it ended spectacularly, with Steve Buscemi being force-fed into a wood-chipping machine.

 

When it was announced a few years ago that author, screenwriter and producer Noah Hawley was masterminding a ten-episode, ten-hour TV version of Fargo, I should’ve been pleased at the prospect of getting six times the dose of Fargo-the-movie.  But I felt wary.  For one thing, I thought, surely even the best TV programme-maker in the world would struggle to capture the peculiar spirit of a Coen Brothers movie.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

And I had mixed feelings when I watched the first episodes of the first season of Fargo in 2014.  It was enjoyable, yes, but I was dissatisfied at how it took key character-types from the movie – the bungling loser becoming a criminal (Martin Freeman instead of Macy), the shrewd but gentle-natured police-lady (Allison Tolman instead of McDormand) – and simply tweaked their situations a bit.  Hence, Freeman goes through the same vortex of panic and misery that Macy goes through, but unlike his movie counterpart he apparently emerges from it stronger and richer; while Tolman isn’t pregnant, but the wife of one of her police colleagues is.  The show wasn’t a carbon-copy of the original, then, but it felt like a considerable imitation.

 

However, what makes a difference in season one of Fargo, from the off, is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Lorne Malvo.  A fearsome hitman, Malvo doesn’t just kill folk.  He also enjoys manipulating and corrupting people whom he comes across, as he does early on with Lester Nygaard, Freeman’s character.  It’s no surprise when at one point he mentions himself being in the Garden of Eden.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

In fact, after a few episodes Fargo season one seemed to escape from the shadow of its cinematic predecessor.  It became unafraid to take risks and do its own thing and generally grew more confident and rewarding.  I particularly liked how in episode 8 it suddenly hopped forward a year or so from its original setting of 2006 and the characters and their circumstances were suddenly transformed – Tolman’s character, Molly, becoming a wife and expectant mother, Lester Nygaard ceasing to be a sniveling weasel and morphing into a successful salesman who seems to have it made.  Though inevitably, fate intervenes when Nygaard pops off to a Las Vegas awards ceremony to pick up a prize and inadvertently crosses paths with Malvo again.

 

Fargo season one became pretty good, then, but it was never perfect.  As the cringing Nygaard, Freeman met the bill physically but faltered somewhat with the Minnesota accent.  Also, the script’s fondness for introducing character duos – not only a pair of other hitmen called Mr Wrench and Mr Numbers, but also a pair of bumbling FBI agents called Agent Pepper and Agent Budge – made me wonder what other duos might appear before the show was over.  Maybe Mr Kidd and Mr Wint from Diamonds are Forever (1971)?

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Season one was boosted by the presence of Keith Carradine in the role of Lou, Molly’s dad and a former policeman.  In one scene, he describes a violent case he experienced in 1979 where there were dead bodies “one after another… probably if you stacked ’em high, you could’ve climbed to the second floor.”  Fargo season two, shown in 2015, tells the story of that case with Patrick Wilson playing a younger version of Lou.  The reason for the multitude of corpses is that 1979 sees gang warfare break out in North Dakota, triggered when the Kansas City syndicate decides to muscle in on a gangster family who’ve been running Fargo city’s underworld for generations.  In a typical twist, these gangsters aren’t Italian in origin but German.  They’re the Gerhardts, fond of eating schnitzel and reminiscing about their forefathers’ exploits on the losing side in World War I.

 

The Gerhardts contain wise heads (Jean Smart, Angus Sampson) and less wise heads (Jeffrey Donovan, Kieran Culkan), though predictably it’s the less wise heads who have the biggest influence on events and bullets are soon flying.  Complicating the situation is a giddy beautician called Peggy, played by Kirsten Dunst – this season’s variation on the hapless-schmuck-getting-mired-in-criminality-and-chaos.  She accidentally smashes her car into a key member of the Gerhardt family one night and instead of driving to the nearest hospital drives home with his bloodied body still sprawled across the bonnet.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

While the first season poked fun at the American Dream, thanks to Lester Nygaard going from zero to hero in his profession after he’s murdered one person and been an accomplice in the murder of a couple of others, season two is explicit in its satirical target.  It’s set at the dawn of the Reagan era, when big corporate businesses got carte blanche to stomp the life out of their smaller competitors, something symbolized by the unequal battle between the Kansas City syndicate and Fargo’s Gerhardts.  Underlining the satire is an appearance in episode 5 by the soon-to-be president Ronald Reagan (played by Bruce Campbell – yay!) who’s campaigning in the neighbourhood.  Lou, who’s a Vietnam veteran, is assigned to Reagan’s security detail and the pair of them start chatting and swapping war memories, though Lou soon realizes that his befuddled charge is talking about the war movies he made as an actor.

 

While the ruthless, corporate way the world is heading sounds the death-knell for the Gerhardts, Fargo season two is not without optimism.  Hope for the future is embodied in Lou’s family unit – his ailing but loving wife (Cristin Milioti), his kindly father-in-law (Ted Danson) and his little daughter, whom we know will grow up to be the heroine of season one.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Fargo’s second season is splendid television – as good as Hannibal (2013-15), True Detective (2014-15) or anything else I’ve seen in recent years.  It’s not, I should say, a straightforward gangster thriller because it’s peppered with strange Coen-esque moments.  Along the way we’re treated to black-and-white clips from fictional Ronald Reagan movies and – in a nod to that late-1970s blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – a giant UFO that appears at crucial moments in the plot.  If you love the whacked-out whimsy of the Coen-verse, as I do, you’ll find the visitations of this UFO delightful.  If you don’t, you may feel like putting your foot through your TV set.

 

Season three of Fargo aired earlier this year and I’ve just finished watching a box-set of it.  Obviously, it had a lot to live up to.  Noah Hawley bravely doesn’t try to emulate the slap-bang action of the previous season and dials things down – even when mass bloodshed occurs in season three, it largely does so offscreen.  The result is a lower-key variation on the Fargo formula, with more bleakness and ambiguity and a suggestion that even the very best characters may not be living happily ever after.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Set in 2010, the third season starts with two business partners, Emmit (Ewan McGregor, whose Minnesota accent is more convincing than Martin Freeman’s) and Sy (Michael Stuhlbarg), discovering that the contract they signed with a shady company that lent them money and bailed them out during the economic crisis two years earlier has some troubling small-print.  One day, an emissary from the shady company called V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) turns up out of the blue and informs them that he’s their new partner.  He’ll be making changes to their operations and expanding them into some new and unorthodox areas.

 

Emmit also has to deal with his brother Ray, who’s played too by McGregor.  Jacob-and-Esau-style, Ray blames Emmit for cheating him out of his birthright (a collection of valuable stamps) and dooming him to a deadbeat existence as a parole officer.   Ray is urged on in this sibling quarrel by his girlfriend Nikki (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an ex-felon who’s actually one of his parolees.  When the embittered Ray blackmails another of his parolees into burgling Emmit’s house for him, we enter that now-familiar Fargo territory where Things Start to Go Wrong.

 

There are some hilarious early scenes where Emmit and Sy watch helplessly while their company is taken over by the mysterious but clearly criminal Varga – whom Thewlis basically plays as the devil, though a devil with the manner of a world-weary, disheveled schoolmaster who’s constantly having to explain things in very simple terms to very stupid schoolchildren.  But the humour rapidly sours.  Although they’re a pair of self-satisfied and not-very-bright shysters, neither Emmit nor Sy are that bad and neither of them deserve the tribulations that are soon visited upon them, Job-like.  Sy, a Coen-esque character with the demeanor (and effectiveness) of an angry chihuahua, is touchingly loyal to Emmit and you feel quite upset at his eventual fate.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

Similar ambiguity exists elsewhere.  Ray is an oaf whose petulant actions result in misery and death, but he at least shows genuine love for Nikki.  Meanwhile, Nikki is capable of resorting to murder to have her way, but when Varga gets forcefully involved in the Ray-Emmit feud and she declares war against him – she even enlists the help of the hitman Mr Wrench from season one – we find ourselves cheering her on.

 

Representing the forces of goodness this time is Carrie Coon as police chief Gloria Burgle.  Compared with Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson in the previous seasons, she has a smaller support base – a 13-year-old son and a policewoman buddy (Olivia Sandoval) and that’s about it.  Her husband has left her and her stepfather is dead before the end of episode one.  And what she’s up against is frightening.  While the Kansas City syndicate in season two represented big business, Thewlis’s Varga, a man apparently without identity or history but able to commandeer computers and the Internet to do whatever he wants, is symbolic of the vast, practically-omnipotent multinationals that exist today and are richer and more powerful than most countries.

 

Hawley pushes the envelope with season three.  One episode contains animated segments involving a wandering robot – Gloria discovers that her late stepfather once wrote science-fiction stories under another name, belatedly reads one of his novels and visualises its plot in cartoon form.  At other points, the show approaches the supernatural weirdness of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) with Ray Wise (who was in Twin Peaks) turning up as a character who might be God to David Thewlis’s devil.  In this morally-unstable universe, however, God’s appearances are less frequent and consistent than those of his adversary.

 

© FX Productions / FXP / MGM Television

 

The early episodes of Fargo season three suffer from pacing problems, when more could be happening and happening more quickly.  But it does build to a suspenseful climax and the scene where Gloria and Varga finally come face to face is quietly brilliant.  It’s not as great as season two, but it’s great in parts.

 

And near the end of the final episode, after so many hours of Fargo-related TV, when Jeff Russo’s melancholic but majestic theme music swirled up on the soundtrack, do you know what?  I thought, shit.  It’s still over too soon.

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Books and films: True Grit

 

(c) Bloomsbury

 

Such is the cultural heft of the 1969 Western movie True Grit, for which John Wayne won his only Best Actor Oscar playing the irascible, overweight and eye-patched US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, that until a few years ago I didn’t even know it was based on a novel written by Charles Portis and published in 1968.  It was only when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, were about to release their own version of True Grit in 2011, with Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, that I read a preview of the film and saw Portis’s novel mentioned for the first time.

 

I recently read the novel and I thought I’d devote a blog-entry to comparing it with its two film adaptations.  Needless-to-say, if you haven’t yet read the novel or seen the Coen brothers’ film, or if you’re one of the four people on the planet who haven’t seen the John Wayne film and don’t know its dialogue off by heart (“I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!”), I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead.

 

To cut to the chase: True Grit-the-novel begins brilliantly.  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Worth, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”

 

The narrator of True Grit is Maddie Ross, who is looking back on her youthful adventures from the vantage point of middle age.  She goes on to describe those adventures in the same, mannered – she writes her words in their entirety, for example, and doesn’t use contractions like ‘I’ll’ or ‘didn’t’ – but wonderfully direct prose.  Portis’s use of a simple Southern female to tell his story has led some to compare True Grit with Huckleberry Finn.  However, as has been pointed out by Donna Tartt, who wrote the introduction for the edition of True Grit that I read, there’s a big difference between Maddie and the narrator of Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel.  “Where Huck is barefoot and ‘uncivilised’, living happily in his hogshead barrel,” notes Tartt, “Maddie is a pure product of civilisation as a Sunday school teacher in nineteenth-century Arkansas might define it: she is a strait-laced Presbyterian, prim as a poker… tidy, industrious, frugal, with a head for figures and a shrewd business sense.”  Indeed, it isn’t difficult to see Maddie Ross’s influence on one of the most memorable of Donna Tartt’s own characters, the juvenile would-be detective Harriet Cleve in her 2002 novel The Little Friend.

 

Thanks to Maddie’s combination of precociousness and strait-lacedness, sparks soon fly as she allies herself with two men in the quest to hunt Tom Chaney down.  Firstly, she hires Marshall Rooster Cogburn to do the job, using money she’s acquired from some skilful haggling in Fort Worth following her father’s murder: she manages to sell four Texas mustang ponies, which her father had just bought from a trader called Colonel Stonehill, back to Stonehill.  (Later, she buys one of the ponies, called Little Blackie, back again from the understandably bamboozled Stonehill.)  Cogburn has many bad habits, including a weakness for the bottle, which Maddie doesn’t approve of.  When he offers her a spoonful of the hard stuff to drink, she snaps, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

 

Then at the lodging house she’s staying at in Fort Worth, Maddie encounters a young and conceited Texan Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s hunting Chaney for a murder he’d committed previously in Waco, Texas.  Maddie is wise to LaBoeuf’s conceit immediately and is unhappy about the idea of him taking Chaney back to stand trial in Texas – she’s determined to have him hang in Fort Worth, the scene of her father’s murder – and tells him so, much to his displeasure.  LaBoeuf growls, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”  To which Maddie retorts brilliantly, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.”  (It seems icky that thirty-year-old LaBoeuf would consider ‘stealing a kiss’ from fourteen-year-old Maddie.  Mind you, by nineteenth-century standards, I suppose this wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows.)

 

(c) Paramount

 

In the 1969 film, Maddie is less central to the plot and she’s also played by Kim Darby, who was in her early twenties at the time.  These things remove much of the humour from the situation – no longer are two rough, tough grown men being bossed around by a pushy and prudish girl in her early teens.  Because of Darby’s maturity, Maddie seems much more compatible with LaBoeuf (who’s played by country singer Glen Campbell) and as the film progresses there’s a whiff of romance between the two of them.  Furthermore, there are times when John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn seems almost like a father-figure to them both.

 

Nonetheless, the 1969 True Grit remains an amusing film.  With Maddie portrayed in more conventional terms, there’s more focus on Cogburn himself – and of course Wayne, who’d thought the film’s script was one of the best he’d ever read, seized the opportunity and played the marshal as an entertainingly rambunctious, almost Falstaffian figure.  I know serious film-buffs are sniffy about Wayne winning an Oscar for the role and dismiss it as a long-time service award rather than as recognition of specific acting ability, but to be fair, Wayne’s turn as Rooster Cogburn has stayed in the popular consciousness for longer than many other Oscar-winning performances from the time.  (Nowadays, for instance, who really remembers Cliff Robertson in the previous year’s Charly?)

 

In 2011, the Coen brothers returned to the novel’s framing device and to the concept of Maddie being little more than a child.  As well as recapturing the wry humour of the novel, this approach puts Maddie centre-stage and pushes Cogburn a little to the side – as played by Jeff Bridges, he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure than Wayne’s version.  LaBoeuf, who’s played by Matt Damon, is side-lined even more.  Damon’s portrayal of the ranger is pretty low-key anyway, and for some reason the Coens have him abandon Maddie and Rooster twice during the film – neither of these departures happened in the novel – which further lessens the character’s impact.  With Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen years old at the time of filming) playing Maddie, the character’s solemn and priggish voice that was so memorable in Portis’s book comes across strongly.

 

However, I would have liked it if the Coens had included a few more of Maddie’s quaint, religious pronouncements.  “…(A)ll cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says at one point in the novel.  “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?  Some preachers will say, well, this is superstitious ‘claptrap’.  My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.”  Elsewhere, she describes Woodrow Wilson as “the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age” and she reprimands the breakaway Cumberland Presbyterian Church by saying, “Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10.  Also I Peter1: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7.  There you have it.  It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me.  It is good enough for you too.”

 

The novel sees Maddie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off into Indian Territory, where Chaney has fallen in with a band of desperadoes led by ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper.  At first, neither man is enamoured with Maddie’s presence.  Only gradually does she earn their respect and acceptance.  Cogburn sides with her when LaBoeuf, in a fit of impatience, starts beating her with a switch: “Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf.  He said, ‘It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper.’”  Later, it’s LaBoeuf’s turn to support Maddie against Cogburn, who proposes leaving her at J.J. McAlester’s store, a rare safe haven in the territory: “LaBoeuf said, ‘There is something in what she says, Cogburn.  I think she has done fine myself.  She has won her spurs, so to speak.  That is just my personal opinion.’”

 

The 1969 and 2011 films follow the novel fairly faithfully during this section, although as I’ve said, the Coen brothers have the threesome separate for a time.  Also, they insert some characteristically perverse stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin.  It’s as if the brothers decided they had to make the story a little more Coen-esque, so that it would appeal to their normal audiences.  Both films are similar in how they show events at a dugout where Cogburn captures Quincy and Moon, two associates of the Ned Pepper gang.  In order to stop the weak-willed Moon from blabbing to Cogburn about the gang’s movements, Quincy grabs a knife and whacks the fingers off one of his hands (“which flew up before my eyes like chips from a log”).  In the 1969 movie, the unfortunate Moon is played by the great Dennis Hopper.  In the 2011 movie, he’s played by the currently ubiquitous Domhnall Gleason.

 

(c) Paramount 

 

Close to the book too is how both films depict the climactic action sequence where Cogburn squares up to the Pepper gang:

 

“Rooster said, ‘I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience!  Which will you have?’

“Lucky Ned Pepper laughed.  He said, ‘I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!’

“Rooster said, ‘Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’ and he took the reins in his teeth and pulled the other saddle revolver and drove his spurs into the flanks of his strong horse Bo and charged directly at the bandits.”

 

In fact, I have seen one film critic – clearly ignorant of the book’s existence – complain that the Coen brothers’ True Grit was too similar to the John Wayne version, citing this scene as an example.  As might be expected from the Coens, the confrontation between Cogburn and the Pepper gang is better staged in their film.  However, in the 1969 film, which was directed by the workmanlike and unshowy Henry Hathaway, the scene contains more of an emotional charge – no doubt because, over the years, it’s become one of the key sequences in John Wayne’s cinematic oeuvre.

 

Subsequently, Tom Chaney batters LaBoeuf insensible with a rock and, though Maddie manages to shoot him, he knocks her into a deep, rattlesnake-infested pit.  Rooster finally rescues her, but not before a snake bites her, and he embarks on a desperate race to get her back to civilisation before the poison kills her – riding her luckless horse, Little Blackie, to death in the process.  In the novel and in the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf survives his injury but is, temporarily, left behind in Indian Territory.  In the 1969 film, the blow from Chaney’s rock is enough to kill LaBoeuf.  Neither film quite does justice to the claustrophobic horrors that Maddie experiences in the pit, which Portis devotes ten pages of his novel to describing.  The Coen brothers are, however, brutal in showing the sacrifice made by Little Blackie.

 

The novel ends a quarter-century after those events with Maddie as a one-armed middle-aged woman – to save her, a doctor had to amputate her snake-bitten arm – travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s discovered, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing.  But she arrives too late.  After having a conversation with the former outlaws, now show performers, Cole Younger and Frank James (“Keep your seat, trash!” she snorts contemptuously at James), she learns that Cogburn died a few days earlier.  All she can do is have his remains dug up and then re-buried at her family plot in Arkansas, with a $65 marble headstone commemorating him as “a resolute officer of Parker’s court”.  The 2011 film stays true to this wistful ending, which symbolises how, by the start of the 20th century, the old Wild West had been tamed and domesticated.  However, it’s a tad more positive, because it has Cogburn writing to Maddie to inform her of his participation in the Wild West show.  In the book, there’s no hint that Cogburn even remembers her, and she only hears about him being in the show after her brother sees it mentioned in a newspaper advertisement.

 

Although there are other westerns where John Wayne played a character who died at the end, symbolising the passing of the Wild West – John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), for instance, or Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) – the 1969 True Grit goes for a more upbeat ending.  Not only does Maddie remain in one piece (we last see her with the bitten arm in a sling), but there’s a final scene where she’s reunited with Rooster Cogburn at her murdered father’s graveside.  That said, I find this version of True Grit sad in its own way.  This is because of the death of LaBoeuf, who’s a more likeable and heroic character here and, indeed, had seemed likely to end up romantically linked with Maddie.  In fact, as a kid, when I first saw the film on TV, I was quite upset at Glen Campbell’s unexpected demise near the end.

 

I like both cinematic versions of True Grit.  I appreciate the Coen brothers’ film because it captures much of the sombre but quirkily amusing tone of the source material, and I enjoy the John Wayne film because of its straightforward, old-fashioned entertainment value.  But to experience the truest True Grit, you need to read the book by Charles Portis.