Wednesday, 16 February 2011

True Grit

2010. Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper. ●●●●○



The Coen Brothers have done it again, they have taken their brand of subversive reverance and paid homage to a new genre. Tackling for the first time, in a direct way, the great American artform: the Western. All at once True Grit is a reminder/throw back to the classics of the genre that once ruled the commercial cinema scene, and yet at the same time there are distinct touches of Coen humour that fit the movie to their style perfectly.



We begin with a voiceover describing how Mattie Ross's (the younger version of whom will be played by Hailee Steinfeld) father has been brutally murdered at the hands of outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in a virtual blink and you'll miss him role) and how she will set out to avenge his death, in a strike for feminism unlikely to be seen or believed in the Arkansas plains in which it's set. On the way she picks up two radically different compatriots in her quest (Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon).

It's impossible to review the Coen film without comparing it to the 1969 Henry Hathaway version which won John Wayne his only Oscar (and it's far from Wayne's best performance see The Searchers or The Quiet Man for that), so I will pepper the review with direct references to both version and I hope you don't mind that. The Coen's obviously might, they've claimed repeatedly that this adaptation is taken directly from Charles Portis's novel but there remain some obvious shots (hello final shootout) and iconic images (Cogburn has no eyepatch in the Novel) that must have arrived, conciously or subconciously, from the older version.

The screenplay has been tightened in the last 40 years, with some fluff removed quickening the pace of the movie and substantially improving the flow of the non-action scenes, although disappointingly the scenes between Steinfeld and the inept horse trader trying not to pay out for her loss have been cut down which takes away from the precosious intelligence of the character. Not that Steinfeld really needs it, she totally inhabits the role and convinces both as a teenage girl struggling to find a way in a man's world and as a hardened frontierswoman, coming to terms with the harsh realties of necessary violence.

Jeff Bridges, as the Marshall with True Grit she signs up to the cause, takes a deliberatly low-key approach to the role (in direct contrast to the bombastic Wayne), mumbling into his beard, breathing the drawn out intentions like every line is quoted from the Old Testament. It's the sort of performance that only Bridges can do, laidback but intense able to hold the audience in the palm of his hand.

Matt Damon is "a Texas Ranger" already under contract to capture Chaney. He's a comic delight, drawling his lines with a mix of pomposity and underscored menace. It's a shame his work hasn't seen more recognition from awards bodies. The character is missing for much of the screenplay - the arguments between him and Cogburn seem more realistic and thorough than the previous version with the team splitting up to allow the dust to settle on two occasions.

The Coen's, working within the post-revisionary Western Arena, have constructed a world far muckier and infused with corruption than Hathaway could allow. When Cogburn breaks his promise to bury a dying man there is no conscience baiting argument from Maddie. The ending is also changed significantly, and whilst surprising in it's anti-climatic brevity it does reflect the ambiguity of most of their work.

The look of the film is perfect, New Mexico has never been shot to make the vistas so elegant, and it's good to know the inevitable overdue Oscar for Deakins will be for a piece of work that thoroughly deserves it.

I would have to highly recommend this movie, it's very limited drawbacks would only be the lack of ambition with regards to subtext and an over-enforced brevity which doesn't givve the actors the freedom to explore they probably deserve.

3 comments:

Alex in Movieland said...

no mentioning of Barry Pepper's fabulous cameo? :) I really liked him.

I must admit I haven't seen the 1969 version, but I sure won't do it now, I suspect that one will look a bit silly by comparison.

TomS said...

Hmm...I respect your review, as always. I still have not seen this, and am still not sure I wouldn't come away disappointed....but I will trust your recommendation and check it out...

I wasn't a huge fan of the original John Wayne version, although having seen it again recently on Cable, it was unpretentious fun and that's about all. Hard to believe it received a G rating in 1969!

Runs Like A Gay said...

Alex,

Whilst I enjoyed Bary Pepper's performance I had completely forgotten it by the time I wrote the review. Less impactful than Robert Duvall in the same role in the origial. (Although it was shot infinitely better).

Tom,

This is worth seeing, if only to see how the Western has evolved over the last 40 years.