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The Coen brothers' gritty tale for kids

The filmmakers liken 'True Grit' to the young adult adventure stories of their youth. And 'The Night of the Hunter,' of course.

January 11, 2011|By Glenn Whipp
  • Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges and young actress Hailee Steinfeld star in the new Coen brothers film, "True Grit."
Academy Award-winning actor Jeff Bridges and young actress Hailee Steinfeld… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

If you want to watch a Coen brothers movie with your kids, the options make for a pretty brief film festival. "Raising Arizona," with its loopy comic energy and nods to the Road Runner, isn't a bad starting point, though you still might have some explaining to do about the whole kidnapping thing. "The Hudsucker Proxy" has that marvelous, wordless sequence in which we see the hula hoop take flight in children's minds. But that's three minutes out of nearly two hours. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Maybe. Provided your child digs Greek mythology and bluegrass music.

It's not like Joel and Ethan Coen lie awake at night worrying about this hole in their filmography. That would signal they actually think about their body of work and the meaning of it all, when, really, once they finish a film, it's on to the next one. Self-analysis after the fact has never been their thing.

But when Joel, 56, took Charles Portis' novel "True Grit" off the shelf a few years ago to read aloud with his son, Pedro (now 16), the idea hit him that it'd make for a great movie, yes, and that it was a kind of movie they'd never done before.

"That was one of the attractive things about it, from our point of view," Joel says, with Ethan, 53, adding that he too had read the book with his 11-year-old daughter, Dusty.

"Making a movie that a 14-year-old girl is going to want to see is not what we usually do," Joel continues. "And that interested us, doing something that you know as a parent you can take your 14-year-old daughter to see and actually like yourself for it."

So, while "True Grit" has been hailed as the Coens' first western (a genre designation they take exception to), the PG-13 movie actually blazes an entirely different trail for the filmmakers who managed to drop 260 F-bombs in "The Big Lebowski."

"It's interesting, isn't it?" says Jeff Bridges, who, playing the Dude in "Lebowski" 12 years ago, memorably swore with such abandon that Sam Elliott's character felt compelled to ask: "Do you have to use so many cuss words?"

"The story is kind of in the Mark Twain 'Huck Finn' tradition," Bridges says. "You've got a young hero, in this case a girl, getting into all sorts of scrapes and adventures. You can see how kids of a certain age would really enjoy it," says Bridges, who along with his young costar have been nominated for Screen Actors Guild awards.

What that certain age might be, of course, depends on the kid. "True Grit" opens with a shot of a dead man's body lying in a soft blanket of snow. The victim's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), resolves to "avenge her father's blood" and enlists the help of a one-eyed lawman, Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), to help her hunt down his killer.

On the trail, Mattie and Rooster and at times the third member of their small posse, the loquacious Texas Ranger La Boeuf ( Matt Damon), encounter a corpse hanging from a tree, a bearded man bundled in a bearskin, snakes and death and treachery of all stripes.

Beyond the Portis novel (the Coens claim only vague recollections of the 1969 John Wayne version), inspiration came from the bold illustrations found in Howard Pyle's "The Book of Pirates," a volume they pored over in their youth.

"That pictorial style of illustration from Pyle and N.C. Wyeth was in the background of what we were thinking all the time," Joel says. "They're in the spirit of young adult adventure stories, the whole 'Treasure Island,' 'Kidnapped,' pirate story genre. Disney made all those. 'Blackbeard's Ghost' with Peter Ustinov and the great Dean Jones."

"And they always had a young adolescent who gets thrown in this exotic world," Ethan excitedly chimes in. "I still remember the illustration of the guy getting the black spot."

"Right," Joel agrees. "There's another Howard Pyle illustration we have that our father gave us with a pirate leaning over, shooting someone point-blank across the table in the captain's quarters."

"With the lantern swinging!" Ethan adds.

The Coens love that particular illustration so much that they did their own version of it in a nighttime scene in "True Grit" in which Rooster confronts a couple of outlaws in a dimly lighted dugout.

The Coens also returned to "The Night of the Hunter," a touchstone they have woven into their films through the years. Like "Grit," Charles Laughton's 1955 eerie adventure tale features innocents confronting murder and madness. It also possesses, at times, a dreamlike quality, something the Coens directly reference near the end of "Grit" during a key nighttime horse ride with Rooster and a woozy Mattie. The hymn playing during that scene (and throughout the film), "Leaning on Everlasting Arms," was also prominent in Laughton's film.

"Absolutely," Joel says. "'Night of the Hunter' was the other thing always in the back of our minds."

But then, it's been there before in "Raising Arizona," "The Man Who Wasn't There" and, yes, "The Big Lebowski." The popular catchphrase "the Dude abides" is but a variation of Lillian Gish's belief in "Night of the Hunter" that "children are man at his strongest. They abide …. The wind blows, and the rains are cold. Yet they abide … they abide and they endure."

"The Dude abides!" Bridges says with an enthusiasm that speaks to what he says next. "I never get tired of hearing those words! I just hope they don't wait 12 years to offer me another part."

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