Much is being said about the Coen Bros. current adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, True Grit. Most of that talk is about the deviations of this film from the more heroic, more westernized film featuring John Wayne as “Rooster” Cogburn. This film, as opposed to that one, is the blackest of comedies in a way. Young Mattie Ross hires on men she believes to be heroes of the west, pure of heart and action, ready to seek out her father’s murderer and bring them to justice. What she gets are souls with feet of clay, the proverbial “least of these,” who are lucky to be heroes of their own bedrooms, having not dropped dead in their sleep. This film uses one genre as disguise for another.
The same can be said of Carter Burwell‘s score for the film. Burwell, one of the Coen’s inner circle of co-workers, like director of photography Roger Deakins and Barry Sonnenfeld before him, is a crucial part of what makes their films so unique. His scores seldom relate directly to the actions on the screen, very rarely “Mickey Mousing” with the narrative, and his palette of tonal coloration spans everything from the Dude’s exploits, to the yodels from Raising Arizona to the strains of dread and certainty in Fargo.
The same holds true for True Grit. Using old hymns as source material, and the stylistic nod of piano-based score for the more idealistic first quarter of the film, and the more-orchestrated, ambiguous and disillusioned rest of the piece, he makes commentary without needing a piccolo to shadow on-screen footsteps. The hymns are Mattie Ross, the young girl at the center of the story, and those songs represent her convictions; convictions that will be tested and torn when she gets a real look at the world beyond her search for justice.
How does the score work as music aside from the film? Remarkably well, believe it or not. Burwell is a favorite composer for me, as different as can be from the Wagnerian John Williams, and his scores often tread a fine line between ambiance, minimalism and soundtracking. In that, his bits have the ability to stand alone, where so many others lean on the visuals like a crutch. Considering how visual Coen Brothers films tend to be, that alone is an achievement.
Unfortunately, the Oscar folks don’t see it as such, having disallowed the music into the “Best Music” category for this year’s awards. Personally, I feel this is an arbitrary and unmerited move. Yes, the music leans on the old hymns as source material and, perhaps, can’t be allowed in as something wholly “original” in the “original soundtrack” classification, but on that topic I fervently shout, “B.S.” In 1986, Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission lost to Herbie Hancock‘s score for Round Midnight, which similarly leaned on jazz pieces. The nominations haven’t been announced yet, but I guarantee that at least one score on that list doesn’t deserve inclusion as much as this soundtrack.
True Grit is available from Amazon.com.
- Film Review: Coen Brothers shoot straight, hit target in ‘True Grit’ (commercialappeal.com)
- TRUE GRIT Review (collider.com)