Friday, 11 February 2011

True Grit

Mattie Ross is a 14 year old seeking vengeance on Tom Chainey, the man who killed her father before making off with his horses and gold. While collecting his body, she inquires about hiring a US Marshal to track down Chainey, and chooses to hire Rooster Cogburn, a bad-tempered old drunk with one good eye and a penchant for taking the law into his own hands, delivering justice with the barrel of his gun. As they head out, they are joined by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger also tracking Chainey and his men. Can the three of them stay together long enough to bring justice to Chainey? Or will Chainey be able to evade capture once again?

True Grit is an institution of cinephiles everywhere. It earned John Wayne, the Duke, his one and only Oscar win for Best Actor, and proudly takes its place amongst the great Westerns in cinema history. So, fast forward 42 years, and here we find Charles Portis’ novel taking to the big screen once again. But why? Why choose to readapt this classic story and timeless motion picture? Is it even a remake? Could it be a ‘reimagining’ perhaps? Or is it a case of the Coen brothers finally relenting, making the genre piece that fans have been begging them to for years and choosing an already famous story to do it with?

The Coen brothers have carved out a niche for themselves; they’ve created their own genre. Intricate plotlines, interesting visuals, unique characters, snappy and witty dialogue, dark themes; there are all standard from a Coen brothers film. You’d think their way of making films would fit the Western genre perfectly, yet they’ve never gone all out with it. They teased a Western with No Country for Old Men, but finally they’ve added their unique skew on filmmaking to an out-and-out Western. I’m happy to report it’s a perfect fit, a match made in heaven truly. Portis’ novel True Grit already provides the unique characters and the dark themes, the setting and the genre provide the interesting visuals, and the Coens have created a script full of the dialogue you’d expect from them: A sly mix of deathly serious and darkly funny, with the occasional full-blown laugh thrown in for good measure.

This brings me onto the performances, which are strong and consistent throughout. Jeff Bridges has a lot to thank the Coens for; they created his most memorable character in ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski and now they’ve brought him in to try and recreate an iconic role forever associated with ‘The Duke’. Bridges is pretty well aware of the shoes he’s stepping into, and so ends up underplaying it throughout, but it still works, the character is too strong to disappear into the background, and thus Bridges steals focus and attention every time he’s on screen. However, he is equalled by Hailee Steinfeld playing Mattie Ross. As the Coen brothers readapted the novel, they made sure they did something which wasn’t done in the original adaptation: The focus stayed on Mattie. The story is told from her perspective, narrating as an adult, and as such, Steinfeld is given a hefty responsibility with most of the dialogue and a more forceful version of the character than before. She lives up to it though, and surprises with just how much presence she has. Matt Damon is good, but outshone, as the brash and arrogant LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef, of course), but he certainly very easily erases the memory of Glen Campbell from the ’69 version. Josh Brolin is OK as Chainey, but just isn’t as memorable or commanding as his opposite numbers.

As for the direction, it’s standard Coen brothers. What more can I say? You know what you’re getting. And with it being a Western, they give you the huge, panoramic landscapes of the frontier which defined the genre, but they put their own twist on it. While they give you the sweeping panoramas, it doesn’t fill you with hope and wonder, instead it’s all pretty dark tonally and fills you with... I want to say fear? Maybe not, but it’s the opposite of hope... Despair? It’s not a Western as you know it – It’s a Coen brothers Western.

Overall, it’s really terrific, it really is. It’s probably one of the more approachable Coen brothers films for an outsider who either isn’t aware of their work or isn’t a big fan of their work, it’s nowhere near as heavy a watch as A Serious Man or Barton Fink or even No Country for Old Men. For the fans though, it’s brilliant, just what you’d expect with a fantastic return of the Dude, this time doing the Duke as good as the man himself. The Coens have reimagined a classic, and made it... Well, a classic. In a perfect world, all films would be made by the Coen brothers, and they’d all be as good as this.

Rating: *****