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Non-Review Review: True Grit

True Grit is a strange proposition. It’s very clearly a very typical Western movie, about a bunch of (effectively) hired guns hunting down a fugitive on the run from the law, in pursuit of a large bounty. However, it’s also very distinctively a Coen Brothers movie, in attitude and tone. It isn’t that the two are mutually exclusive (No Country For Old Men, for example, was a modern Western with a very Coen aesthetic), but it’s just strange to see both elements so strongly pronounced. Although not quite perfect, True Grit is a movie well worth your time.

Snow man's land...

I have to admit to being very nervous when it was announced that the Coen Brothers would be tackling this as their next feature film. After all, the novel True Grit had been adapted into an award-winning film starring the Duke. It’s one thing to remake a classic Western (3:10 to Yuma is a successful example), but quite another to take one of the most beloved performances of a veteran actor’s career and filter it through your own stylistic blender.

Truth be told, I had nothing to worry about. Despite sharing the name and source material with the earlier film, the Coens adopt a markedly different approach to the material. While the original adaptation was a star vehicle for John Wayne, winning him an Oscar for the role of Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn, this film relegates the lawman to a supporting role. He’s charmingly played as a buffoon with a heart hidden somewhere under his tough exterior by Jeff Bridges, but he’s not the main character here. Instead, in a very smart move, the central character is Mattie Ross – the fourteen –old girl who hires Cogburn to track down her father’s killer.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it...

Putting a fourteen-year-old character at the centre of a picture like this is a huge gambit. It’s hard enough to find a young enough performer to play the role well, and generally, by the time you have figured out they can act, they’ve already grown up. However, the Coen Brothers seem to have stumbled across something special in Hailee Steinfeld. Mattie Ross is a character who could easily seem ridiculous. She runs rings around most of the adult cast of this drama (“are we tradin’ again?” one local business man asks, realising that she’s already outwitted him… again), which could be awkward.

It’s difficult to convince an audience that a young character can be so smart, without making the character seem fake or wooden. Steinfeld plays Mattie as a smart and strong young woman (who is brilliantly capable of manipulating those around her, and won’t be taken advantage of), but one who is also vulnerable. When she can’t find a hat that fits, she stuffs a larger one with newspaper. When the belt is too large for her, she ties it in a knot. She’s wily enough to know not to let Rooster Cogburn out of her sight once she has paid his deposit.

Hat's off to Steinfeld...

The film lives or dies with this central performance, and Steinfeld makes sure that it thrives. She’s the character that the audience emotionally engages with, she’s the one who drives the plot, she’s the one who makes all the tough choices. That’s a lot of weight to put on a performer at that age, and Steinfeld shines through. Even my better half left the film impressed with her performance, having (I suspect) entered the cinema with a sense of dread. I predict great things for Steinfeld in the years to come.

The movie is, despite its roots, very distinctively a Coen Brothers film. It’s essentially a film about characters wandering lost in the wilderness, trying to make sense of things while bumping into very surreal individuals. My personal favourite includes a vet/dentist/would-be doctor who rides around in his bearskin. Characters try to disguise their confusion or miscomprehension. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf quotes latin phrases, but mangles his own surname. He tells the same old stories that Rangers have been passing around for generations, stealing them as his own (“I believed it the first twenty-five times I heard it,” Rooster remarks on one harrowing anecdote from LaBoeuf).

Our leads must bear their souls in the wilderness...

Characters are wonderfully eloquent and yet incredibly ignorant. Their sesquipedalian loquaciousness masks an underlying uncertainty about the world that they inhabit. Tom Chaney, the man that they pursue, is hunted for a murder committed over his own misconceptions and misunderstandings – unable to deal with the reality of the situation (he was a bad gambler), he hid behind a convenient fiction (he was cheated). Don’t get me wrong, there are decent people in the film who share the same delusions – at least most of them are decent people, in their own ways (as decent as the world allows, I suppose).

Around half-way through the film, I found myself wondering if perhaps Rooster was a distant forefather to the Dude from The Big Lebowski. Of course, Cogburn is a darker character (as he inhabits a darker world), but both are free spirits. Cogburn tells stories on the trail about his adventures as a lawyer or a chef, his many marriages and complicated history, his time spent wandering between Texas and Canada. He’s a drifter, only one who never really found the peace within himself to simply abide. While the Dude uses his drugs to expand his consciousness, Cogburn uses them to escape reality.

Back in the saddle...

Jeff Bridges’ performance is an interesting one. Myself and the better half discussed it as we left the cinema. We both agreed that Bridges heavily slurred his lines, to the point where some line readings reminded me of Kenny from South Park. I can understand why some audience members might have a problem with it (as I suspect some friends and relatives viewing it over the weekend will), but I kinda appreciate it. Cogburn’s slurred speech is just one of a collection of speech difficulties and impediments suggested through the film, and it plays into a recurring theme – characters who are completely lost and befuddled, and yet try to hide it through their manner of speech. For LaBoeuf, it’s in big words and fancy talk masking his own conflicted nature, but for Cogburn it’s in slurring his words so much it’s sometimes difficult to understand him.

The real surprise of the film, however, was Matt Damon as the Texas Ranger. He just knocks it out of the park as the deeply flawed (and yet occasionally noble) law enforcement officer. He’s not easy to like (and it’s to Damon’s credit that he doesn’t soften him up too much), but he’s always interesting to watch and listen to. The badass moustache probably helped him appeal to me, but I did independently verify that he was great (with the better half, who ranked him just below Steinfeld on the film’s strengths). It’s also nice to see Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, even in relatively small supporting roles. There’s even a vocal cameo for J.K. Simmons.

Damon shows his Ranger...

There are problems with the film. The main one is that the end is just a little… meh. Everything kinda wraps itself up and then… some more stuff happens, and a nice little epilogue. I could have done without the final threat to the protagonists, it seems almost tacked on. However, that’s a relatively minor complaint in the grand scheme of things – and it’s another one of those traits which helps define the movie as a Coen Brothers film, in that they don’t really opt for the most logical ending (most often for more effective endings than this one).

The film has a bit of difficulty with tone at time. I appreciate the use of comedy (especially black comedy) to lighten the mood somewhat of what could be a very dour and depressing film, but occasionally the film looks to trip over itself a bit. Rooster’s drunkness is just a little bit too exaggerated at points, for example. Still, mostly the balance works quite well – especially in the dialogue between the characters, which is wonderfully written.

Home on the Ridge...

What struck me most about the film – and this is something I’ll probably have to put in context – was the optimism of it all. Don’t get me wrong, horrible things happen. This is a Coen Brothers film, after all. The bodies pile up around our leads, and the audience has the growing sensation that not all (or any) may make it home. The film, of course, contains the text book cynicism of the Coens. Refusing to honour his promise to bury a dead outlaw, Rooster remarks, “If he wanted a proper burial he should have died in the summer time.” Both Rooster and LaBoeuf are full of it, and far more flawed than they’d dare acknowledge.

However, amidst all this darkness, there’s a clear suggestion that these are truly remarkable people. Even so drunk he can barely stand, Cogburn can hit a piece of cornbread in mid-air. LaBoeuf at one point makes a stand against a group that heavily outnumbers him – a cynic would describe his actions as stupid, but the film seems to respect it as an act of moral courage. At various points during the film, both Cogburn and LaBoeuf accomplish acts that have been deemed impossible. Sure, it’s a horrible world and they’re far from perfect, but the film acknowledges the best in its characters – even the murdering outlaw Ned Pepper seems almost decent and honourable.

Parting shots...

True Grit isn’t the finest example of the pair’s work, but it’s damn good. The film has some issues towards the end, and potentially with Bridges’ performance (although I’d argue it fits quite well). It’s a powerful moral fairytale about justice, the law and revenge – in a wilderness where men can become so truly lost that fugitive and pursuer can randomly stumble across each other while collecting water. It’s powerful stuff, and a great film.

5 Responses

  1. Solid review! Saw this at the weekend and walked out disappointed – kind of weak throughout, inaudible Dude dialogue and falls to pieces at the end… definitely not their finest hour!

    Still passable, but nowhere near 3:10

    • Yep, not their strongest hour – but that’d be tough. I did really enjoy it, though. It was just good fun, which is why it’s surprising it’s doing so well at awards.

    • I agree with Paul that the dialogue was at times incomprehensible due to the way there speaking. I also thought it was a strangely straightforward movie unlike pretty much any Coen movie made so far. I guess that was a slight disappointment that it was so reverent to the western genre.

      • I don’t know. It was still very “Coen” in that it just rambled around at its own pace, going any number of different directions before reaching a climax and strolling around for a few minutes afterwards.

  2. Glad I’m not alone in feeling the end was a little weak, and kind of hurt the effect of the film’s climax. But I did really love it. It’s my favorite Coen Brothers’ movie, second to O Brother, Where Art Thou? In fairness I haven’t seen Fargo or The Great Lebowski, but neither has greatly appealed to me so far.

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