Tuesday, January 25, 2011

True Grit: What's up with the Bearman?

It's not in the book, nor the hanging man up the tree.

The only other Coen Brothers movie I've seen is O Brother, Where Art Thou? All the reviews I've read on the brothers seem to confer on their super cool status, in no small part due to their signature touch of nihilism. If pairing bluegrass great Ralph Stanley's "Oh Death" with the hooded Klan's man is jarring in O Brother, having Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross encounter the bearman who takes teeth from a corpse is absurd.

And absurdity is key. It one-ups the macabre. The brothers said in an interview that they couldn't resist putting the grown Mattie at the end of the movie (and I like that). But I think what they really couldn't resist was the insertion of the nightmarish encounter half-way in the story. The corpse-carrying medicine man is the antithesis of what Mattie Ross and Rooster stand for: a vengeance seeker and a bounty-hunter;  he questions their enterprise and their purpose. The directors clearly are "enthralled" with the original story and almost fastidiously faithful to it. But I'd say the bearman is where they cut themselves some slack: stamping their own signature of absurdity.

Nihilism isn't new, but has a staying power that is irresistible, so it seems. If anyone cries foul about the romantic moonlight horse ride toward the end, he only needs to look at the hanging man swinging up-high, and the man talks in bear skin and bear speed to be pacified.

In fact I did come across a reviewer who almost mournfully complained about this most un-Coen Brother-like movie. To him, the brothers appear to have been so infatuated with the Charles Portis story that they have lost their edge, at least tentatively betrayed the artsy cult, and somehow been co-opted by the Saturday matinee crowd.

I'm no film-critic, what I have is hardly more than a hunch, which tells me that behind the super-cool armor, the directors are human after all. Armor-bearing can be exhausting in deed, and the urge of being human can be irresistible with an oblitering force. The lightness of being weighs you down, especially when scrawled and grafitted with brutality and sorrow. The Coens may question the credence in existence, yet I bet they still live as if they believed it, even if on the thin ground where they make a deity of their art. I also venture to say that in Mattie Ross and her unflinching sense of purpose and destiny, the brothers perceived, with tenderness, that it's possible to bite back the sting of death. And with that, they played themselves Rooster Cogburn for once.


  1. it's "Oh Brother" not Ole Brother.

  2. Thanks for correcting me. There was no excuse for that error.


  4. As for deviation from the book, I agree - there's no hanging man and no Bear Man. But the message I drew from their encounters in the Choctaw Nation (Indian Territory) was how obviously the river was a barrier between relatively-civilized Fort Smith and the howling wilderness of The Nation. The Bear Man makes that point. He's out there offering dental, medicinal, and veterinary services on an ad hoc basis, taking teeth from cadavers and selling them to the highest bidder. The other characters, too, portray this 'howling wilderness' solitude; all who inhabit that area are greasy, dirty and unkempt, and relatively 'wild.' And just when you think they're all a bunch of savages you encounter Lucky Ned Pepper, who is at once a vicious outlaw and a civilized and fair-minded person who treats courteously with Mattie and discourages Tom Chaney from harming her. I thoroughly enjoyed this ongoing juxtaposition of values as the film progressed.

  5. The "Bear Man" reminds me of the old blind black man at the beginning of "O Brother, where art thou?". Questioning them about their journey and telling them about the future. Same deep low-pitched voice in both cases. It's the guardian before entering the unknown territory also for both movies.

    Mr. Vertigo

  6. Mr.Vertigo, thanks for stopping by and enlightening me with your analogy between the "Bear Man" and the blind prophet in O Brother.

    I recall that O Brother was based on the Odyssey, therefore the blind man is Tiressias, who definitely shares the Bear Man's outsider identity. Their intrusion sets the tone of the uncanny intended to rattle the enterprisers' vision. What's interesting, in the case of the Bear Man, is his apparent unsentimental attitude to human remains, running opposite to Mattie Ross's steely resolution to bring all the "corpses" of the deceased to their rightful destination. In the book Mattie made sure the outlaw Moon's body given a proper burial, the opposite of the practice of taking teeth from corpses.

    The pleasure of reading this story is practically endless.

    Thanks again.

  7. I have loved this movie for years and am very glad that Greaser Bob made mention in this version, as the book is greatly enriched by his name. As a member of the Ned Pepper Gang, it is not indicated in the film, but the Coen's found a way to bring the name into the film in a whimsical and period relative way.

    Great stuff, glad to see so many great thoughts here!



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