Arguably the most conventionally enjoyable film from the Coen Brothers to date, True Grit sees the Oscar-winning duo turn their attention once again to the expansive frontier of the American west. Less a remake and more a re-staging of the 1969 John Wayne starrer, it's generally more faithful to the Biblical themes inherent in Charles Portis' source novel, at heart a straightforward tale of redemption and revenge, and surprisingly free of the manipulative cruelty that has become the Coen's stock-in-trade.
The story tells of young girl Mattie Ross (the remarkably assured Hallee Steinfeld), who seeks to hunt down her father's murderer with the help of drunken US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and support from prickly Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon). Cloaked in themes of Biblical righteousness, the religious portent of the story also extends to Carter Burwell's score, the most prominent musical contribution to a Coen Brothers film in several years, and his 15th collaboration with the brothers.
Just as important as the central performances, costumes, production design and beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins, the incisive use of Protestant hymns in Burwell's score underpins the film with a gripping sense of lyrical sadness. By choosing to rely on the 1877 Protestant hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" as the central theme, further weight is lent to Mattie's quest for revenge. The film sensibly re-configures the focus around Mattie's character, and so Burwell's score follows suit.
Of course, how much of the score can subsequently be credited to Burwell himself is up for question but nevertheless it gives an indication of the composer's compositional intelligence and integrity. What's most interesting is how Burwell deploys the hymn and others to form a musical journey that is both recognisably Western yet appreciably archaic. It's a fascinating approach that works brilliantly as a dramatic device, becoming a vital piece of narrative storytelling in its own right, and calls to mind Clint Mansell's near-concurrent work on Black Swan, wherein he adapted Tchaikovsky's classic ballet.
Made up of a 65 piece orchestra, by and large the score is taken up with the Everlasting Arms melody, but others weave their way in and out, including "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "The Gloryland Way". Throughout, the piano is a prominent instrument, used to convey the plaintive undercurrents of Mattie's journey and grounding the score in a homely sense of beauty. The opener, The Wicked Flee, is a thing of pastoral loveliness, moving from the piano into a full blown orchestral string arrangement. Little Blackie and Your Headstrong Ways again use the Everlasting Arms theme but in a comical, clip-clop sense to represent Mattie's horse who will take her on her journey.
River Crossing and A Great Adventure mark some of the score's boldest, most enjoyable moments, hearkening back to Western themes of old and utilising "The Gloryland Way" in particularly brassy and heroic fashion. Slightly more dispiriting, woodwind-based textures emerge in The Hanging Man and Talk About Suffering, anticipating the terrible showdown to come. The brilliantly titled A Methodist and a Son of a Bitch marks the first appearance of truly abrasive material, indicating the danger that Mattie, Rooster and La Boeuf face on their journey. As the finale approaches, A Turkey Shoot, Taken Hostage and The Snake Pit remind viewers of Burwell's darker work on Fargo, utilising both piano and brass in their lowest regions to convey a sense of dread.
In keeping with the development of the film's narrative, the heroic, defiant blast in One Against Four is used in almost ironic fashion, blurring the notion of what constitutes a hero with "true grit". The most conventionally satisfying portion of the score then unfolds, with Ride to Death and I Will Carry You in particular ushering in moving renditions of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", lending the appropriate amount of Biblical gravitas needed for the film's stirring conclusion. Things end on a suitably somber, piano-led note with the duo of A Quarter Century and The Grave, Burwell generating a noble, haunting atmosphere, evoking the end of Mattie's journey and the passing of the American west.
True Grit truly is one of Carter Burwell's most accessible and enjoyable scores to date, blending intellectual thoughtfulness with a tuneful orchestra to produce a clear, compelling sound. It's likely his most significant contribution to a Coen film since Fargo, although just as much credit needs to go to the original hymns themselves. It's more a successful blend of original and pre-existing material than an entirely original score but Burwell's skill and experience is never in doubt. He may have been disqualified from the Oscars in 2011 but True Grit will likely live on as one of his most popular scores, and as an intelligent reminder of an excellent film.
While Carter Burwell made considerable use of the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", his main theme adapted the traditional hymn tune in a number of ways. We have included our own arrangement of this hymn below, and also "What a Friend we have in Jesus" which is also used in the film (in the track "A Quarter Century"). Each of these is available to download as piano sheet music, midi or mp3 files: