Great film making, they say, is supposed to be invisible. It takes repeated viewings to root out—and become increasingly touched by and attached to—those special moments that make a film come together in a way that delivers aesthetic frisson and confirms cinematic greatness. But every once in a while such a moment announces itself on a very first viewing of the film, drawing shivers, even a tear, as if you’d seen the movie a dozen times before and were visiting an old friend, not encountering a new one for the first time. Such a moment, combining narrative and stylistic power, evokes both emotion and the satisfaction of knowing that, as a viewer, you are in the best, most competent of cinematic hands. It places you simultaneously outside and within the film: it shows you how films, at their very best, are made to work, while at the same time making you feel inescapably a part of the world the film creates.
Such a moment occurs a little under a third of the way into the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, and is, for me, the best moment—and, as it turns out, minute—I spent in a movie theatre in 2010. Actually, True Grit offers several such moments; but this one stands out for the way it strikes you with its sheer beauty and rightness, combining artistry, craftsmanship, talent, vision, and an almost other-worldly grace.
The moment I am referring to is a modest little montage of Mattie Ross preparing to join Rooster Cogburn for “a great adventure”—a journey into the uncharted Choctaw territory in a search for the coward who killed her father, and for some kind of justice. Of course, it is not a “great adventure” to Cogburn. After Mattie stands up to him, giving him a little righteous hell for having disappointed her, Cogburn relents and agrees to undertake the journey and to allow Mattie to join in. “Meet me here at seven in the morning and we will begin our coon hunt,” he says, ironically reprising Mattie’s own invocation of having gone camping with her father as evidence of her ability to handle the wilderness. Cogburn had earlier objected to the comparison: “This ain’t no coon hunt!” To which Mattie emphatically responds, “It is the same idea as a coon hunt,” and she ought to know, since it is, after all, her idea—and she turns out to be right in so many different ways.
The remarkable montage sequence that follows neither begins nor ends sharply; Carter Burwell’s music begins before the Cogburn scene ends, builds throughout the montage, and then bridges us right back to the very place we began less than a minute ago: Cogburn’s shabby apartment in the back of Lee’s store. The previous scene began and ended with Cogburn in his fruit-crate bed, and the following sequence begins with a sleeping figure in the same bed.
Now a word about that music. What should have won the Oscar for the year’s best score was not only not even nominated but was actually disqualified from consideration. The reason had something to do with the score’s having been built on three or four traditional gospel tunes, and therefore containing too much “pre-existing material” to be considered an “original score.” As if a film score composer were nothing but a tunesmith whose job is to invent melodies. Burwell’s score is a towering achievement, building those humble down-home spirituals into such ecstasies of orchestral texture, pacing, repetition and variation, matching music to image, evoking deepest emotion and most breath-taking grandeur. That, not song-writing, is what film score composers do. And as much as any other aspect of the film—which also masterfully showcases the designers’, directors’, cinematographer’s, and editors’ art—Burwell’s magnificent score not only makes the film what it is, but lives in the mind and heart so as to make both score and film unforgettable.
Burwell most famously quotes “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the subject of a haunting nocturnal duet by shotgun-armed Lillian Gish and treacherous preacher-fugitive Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s landmark Night of the Hunter. But for the montage sequence of which I write, Burwell uses a different spiritual, “In the Gloryland Way.” (A more conventional version of this tune can be found here.)
On the last seconds of the preceding scene, as Mattie, satisfied at having persuaded Cogburn to agree to her participation in the adventure but still pouting at his petulance, exits his storeroom apartment, Burwell begins a quiet two-note figure on low strings, repeated four times, as introduction; then we hear a simple reed version of the verse portion of the tune. Full strings and finally brass join in on the chorus, build to crescendo, then subside—all in the space of about 59 seconds.
We are still in the musical introduction as the montage begins, and the reed tune appears: we see a forward tracking shot down Fort Smith’s deserted main drag, Garrison Avenue (DVD time code 32:50). We don’t see Mattie; a single simple point-of-view shot conveys her progress from Cogburn’s to the boarding house. But we are still on the street when we hear, in voice-over, the first words of Mattie’s letter to her mother—which we never see her write or mail, that process being unnecessary to the scene or the film. Much of the beauty of this sequence lies in its economy.
“Dearest Mother,” we hear, and we cut to an over-the-shoulder shot from behind and to the left of Mattie as she opens the closet of her father’s room in the boarding house. It’s a track-in, repeating the forward visual movement of the preceding shot, and echoing the musical momentum. “I am about to embark on a great adventure,” we hear, and cut to:
An across-the-room stationary mid-shot of Mattie putting on her father’s coat, which is too big for her. The reed rendition of the music reaches the end of the second measure of the four that comprise the verse. “I have learned that Tom Chaney has fled into the wild …”
Cut to an overhead stationary close shot of Mattie’s hands as she rolls up the sleeves of the oversized coat. “ … and I shall assist the authorities in pursuit.” Cut to:
Another over-the-shoulder shot from behind and to the left of Mattie as she stands before a mirror trying on her father’s hat—also too large. “You know that Papa would want me to be firm in the Right …” we hear, as we get another overhead stationary shot of Mattie’s hands stuffing newspaper into the hat.
The final line of the verse portion of the tune is reached as we see Mattie in profile—again from her left side—putting on the newspaper-fitted hat. The hat is still too big, but it no longer falls over her eyes.
“… As he always was.” This whole business of making her father’s clothes fit her comes from Charles Portis’s novel, and unfolds in pretty much the same way. Mattie is not making herself fit Papa’s coat and hat, but making them fit her. They are too big for her (in the novel, one character calls Mattie “a walking hat”); but she’s not too small for them. She does not dare to fill her father’s clothes; but she makes sure that the young woman who obtains justice for her father will, as much as possible, have the murdered man’s shape.
—And his weapon:
“So do not fear on my account.” As the verse portion of the tune concludes, we see a third overhead stationary shot, this time Mattie’s hands sliding her father’s pistol into its humble, string-drawn bag. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” The headstrong girl, unable to resist the call of adventure, is ready for anything the frontier has to throw at her.
Now we get another track-in shot: Mattie approaches a table flanked by two chairs. On it rest a white gas lamp and a bowl of impossibly bright red apples. They are so red and so perfect they look waxed. This is, of course, not the sort of thing the penny-pinching landlady would have sitting around her boarding house for just anyone to take for free; and the detail of the apples is the first thing in the montage that does not appear in the novel. But this “still life with apples” shot has to be a visual equivalent to the utterance of the word “apples” in order to echo a line we heard three minutes earlier in the film (in the scene, in fact, immediately before the one in Cogburn’s apartment that in turn preceded this montage): “Well, ma’am, he’s a horse—he likes apples.” (DVD at 29:38). In so doing, the shot implants a sense of Mattie’s devotion to Little Blackie, which will become crucial by the climax of the film. The Coens’ graceful shot neither over- nor under-emphasizes that devotion—just as nothing in the film is ever allowed to suggest that this is the story of a girl and her horse, when in fact it is so much more. But the horse is an important part of it, and the Coens have an unerring sense of how to impart the right degree of importance to that throughout the film.
The apples shot isn’t Mattie’s point of view. It is again from behind her and to her left. (It is the left arm that Mattie ends up losing.) We watch at table-top level, even with the apples, as her arm carrying the bag with Papa’s pistol in it swings into the frame, and then her other hand enters the frame, takes one, two, three apples, puts each into the bag with Papa’s pistol. Full strings and brass have begun the chorus portion of the tune.
So she’s got the coat, the hat, the gun, and the apples, and all that remains is the horse. Our mind is on the horse now, thanks to the apples, so we know as she walks resolutely down the street in the next shot—a stationary long shot as she moves left to right—that she is headed for the stable. And the Biblical weight of Mattie’s letter gives way to quick, practical counterpoint: “The Author of all things watches over me, and I have a fine horse.” If you have God on your side and a good horse, how can you possibly fail? And the music swells through the second line of the chorus.
“Kiss little Frankie for me, and pinch Violet’s cheek.” Cut to the interior of the stable and the powerful rump of a horse that momentarily masks little big-hatted Mattie, who comes into view as we track in on her picking up a saddle and hefting it onto Little Blackie. “Their Papa’s death will soon be avenged.” We cut to a Searchers-style shot from inside the stable through its door to the bright outside, as Mattie rides through it and just starts to lean into her left turn onto Garrison, and the brass hits crescendo at the climax of the third line of the chorus with three majestic ascending notes. “I am off for the Choctaw nation.”
This little montage stands out on so many levels: It gives us images that resonate hauntingly and profoundly with what has gone before and what will come after. It balances moving shots with stationary shots, close shots with long, overhead viewpoints with level. It advances the film’s visual forward-movement. It harmonizes its easy flow of images with the rhythms of both the voice-over narration and the warm Americana of Burwell’s music. In short, it identifies what we see and hear with how we see and hear.
The musical crescendo gently subsides as Mattie strides into Cogburn’s dive (and it’s another track-in from behind her, with a few red bowls echoing the apples of the previous sequence), pulls the hat off a sleeping figure who proves to be not Rooster but Lee, and demands “Where is Marshal Cogburn?”—only to learn that Cogburn has left on the adventure without her.
The reversal betrays the confidence and exuberance of the montage the preceded it—but only for a moment. Mattie will encounter many such disappointments and reversals on her great adventure, but nothing will stop her from having it—as she shortly demonstrates by crossing on horseback a river that two trail-hardened frontier law enforcement officers have moments before crossed by ferry. One of the apples we saw her take from the boarding house plays a crucial role in her ability to escape the ferryman and brave the river. For Mattie’s river crossing, Burwell repeats exactly the same verse-and-chorus of “In the Gloryland Way” used in the montage sequence, but with different orchestration, an altogether bigger sound, evocative more of triumph than of anticipation.
That is a different scene, and another of the many glories of True Grit. But you can say of it, as of this marvelous little minute-montage: That, by God, is how you make movies.
True Grit arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on June 7
True Grit [DVD]
True Grit [Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy]