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.