First of all I’d like to get a few things straight. I’m neither a huge John Wayne fan, nor am I overly familiar with the original ‘True Grit’ film which he starred in. And whilst there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions, I generally rate the Coen Brothers’ work as being pretty hit and miss – for me, only the clever Red Harvest (the same book which was used for the premise of both Yojimbo, and the remake A Fistful of Dollars) adaptation Miller’s Crossing, and the hilarious The Big Lebowski really standing out amidst the crowd. Jeff Bridges? Well, I rate him – especially during these, his golden twilight era of films (Iron Man, Crazy Heart, Tron: Legacy) – and I also love revisionist Westerns: the only two reasons why I was quite keen on checking out True Grit. Well, that and the fact that everybody so highly rated it, including our own reviewer Chris, who covered both the cinema and US Blu-ray release. I seek to offer a different, alternative ‘lay-person’s’ opinion which will suit those who, like me, look at this is largely new material, rather than a remake of a John Wayne classic. So, is it really as good as it’s been hyped out to be?
Mattie Ross is a young 14 year-old girl who is after the man who gunned down her father. Arriving in town to collect the dead body, she immediately sets about trying to find out what, if any, progress the local authorities have had in finding the culprit – who everybody knows to be her father’s hired hand, Tom Chaney. Disillusioned by their lack of success in bringing the murderer to justice, and in the fact that they aren’t prepared to travel into Indian territory in order to seek him out, she decides to find her own bounty hunter to get the job done, and promptly recruits ageing one-eyed Deputy U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn to hunt down Chaney, mainly because of his reputation for having ‘True Grit’. They are, however, not the only ones after Chaney – who is believed to have thrown in with another dangerous criminal, Ned Pepper – as Texas Ranger LaBeouf is also on the trail.
True Grit is not the greatest Western since Unforgiven (why doesn’t anybody seem the remember the fantastic Robert Duvall/Kevin Costner film, Open Range??). And, in my opinion, it doesn’t deserve ten Academy Award Nominations – including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Leading Actor – but perhaps only a couple, including one for Best Supporting Actress. It’s a fine Western, and a great example of the potential that is still held in the genre that some would argue died out long ago, after The Good, the Bad and The Ugly; and Once Upon a Time in the West. But it neither transcends the genre (nor even attempts to), nor does it purport to be a truly great Western. It’s just a very simple story, told pretty well, with some good-to-great performances.
The Coen Brothers are infamous for their quirky, offbeat humour, which pretty-much all of their productions are laced with, and it’s an edge that their films have which leaves them as something akin to Marmite in many viewers’ eyes. Some love the wackiness, some hate it – as it takes them right out of the movie. I generally fall into the latter category, with my favourite Coen Brothers productions generally eschewing their usual sense of humour (even Lebowski goes for full-on wit, rather than oddball quirkiness) in favour of more straight plotting, characterisation and dialogue. Thankfully True Grit is played almost totally straight, even if it doesn’t have the dark, oppressive overtones of their earlier Western-style thriller No Country for Old Men (which I’ve yet to revisit, and which didn’t sit well with me on first viewing because of the massive narrative shift midway through). ‘Grit will play well for younger audiences, but treads a fine line without becoming so silly that some would just dismiss it. It has trademark Coen Brothers moments, but isn’t a full-on Coen-infused production. Which really works for the material.
Jeff Bridges is a perfect choice for the grizzled veteran bounty hunter, Cogburn, who is very rough around the edges, and may not be the crack shot that he thinks he is, but who still has the guts that many younger folk around him just can’t compete with. You get the feeling that he genuinely isn’t afraid of dying, but this comes across totally in the performance – he never has to say anything to convey his unflinching resolve; he merely exudes it. That said, I think that there is a huge difference between the multi-dimensional performance he put in for Crazy Heart (for which he won an Oscar), and the solid contribution he makes here. For starters, his character is simply not developed enough – he’s better rendered than your stereotypical anti-hero veteran, but still just a shade when compared to some other roles he’s taken on. Matt Damon manages to break free of his Bourne trappings (which he couldn’t do in Green Zone, and which he managed somewhat in the mismarketed The Adjustment Bureau) as the Texas Ranger who is also hunting the same quarry; but again his character suffers under the limited plotting – which actually calls for far too many scenes where Cogburn and LaBoeuf (in true Coen Brothers tradition, pronounced “Le-Beef”) squabble. For a film which already feels long (even if it isn’t), the narrative is somewhat jarringly punctuated by occasionally humorous segues into their ongoing feud. They argue, go their separate ways, meet up, argue, go their separate ways. Repeat. Rinse.
Actually, the most noteworthy aspect of the production comes from 14 year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who is absolutely amazing as the young, forthright girl at the centre of it all – Mattie – who is determined to bring her father’s killer to justice. Both in terms of her character design, and her innate presence, she commands your attention whenever on screen, and is certainly a young actress to keep an eye on in the future. Arguably much like Saoirse Ronan in the quality thriller Hanna, Hailee Steinfeld remains the biggest reason to see this movie, and the reason why it stands out from the crowd.
In attempting to effect a by-the-numbers genre entry, and yet imbue it with all of the qualities of a great Western, I think the Coen Brothers set their sights a little bit low with True Grit. The stripped-down narrative is peppered with moments of absolute genius – the courtroom scene, the scene where Mattie aggressively negotiates with a trader, both sequences near the log cabin at night, and the great little moment where Cogburn kicks some horse-taunting children off a porch. But Josh Brolin’s third act part is off-centre (his face shouldn’t be on the leading poster with the others – if anything it should be the superior Barry Pepper, playing the other criminal they are after, Ned) and the Coens spend too much time with the characters in-fighting, and not enough time developing them, leaving the strong conclusion almost coming across as too little, too late. And a couple of terrible green-screen moments really don’t help the final few minutes.
Yet, despite all of this, it’s impossible to deny that True Grit is a quality Western. It may not reach the great heights that many expected of it, but there is still something special about it, which raises it above being just another ‘solid’ genre entry. It’s a shame that it just feels like there is something missing, but I guess we should be happy with what remains – Jeff Bridges providing the backbone, Hailee Steinfeld providing the spark, and the Coen Brothers delivering a decent genre film which is pretty fine viewing by anybody’s standards.
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