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True Grit Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 18, 2011 at 3:37 AM

  • Movies review

    191

    True Grit Review

    “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will you have?”

    “I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man!”

    “Fill your hand, you sonofabitch!

    After what seems like ages, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic Western novel, True Grit, comes to region-free US Blu-ray, courtesy of Paramount. Finally riding into town in the wake of a dust-storm of critical praise and Academy recognition, the movie can now be appreciated in all its period grime, dust and, well, grit back on the ranch.The Dude climbs into the Duke’s saddle as cantankerous, one-eyed, alcoholic Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn and belligerently accepts the task of tracking down the murderous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for the bereaved fourteen-year-old daughter of his victim … and history repeats itself to stunning effect in a beautiful recreation of what was an iconic last gasp from a genre that, in 1969, had found itself almost run into the ground and left for dead.

    The dogged manhunt for Chaney progresses across the bleak wilderness and out into Indian Country, with young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) riding alongside the reluctant allies of the aging, overweight Marshal (Jeff Bridges) and an enthusiastic, self-righteous Texas Ranger called LaBeouf (Matt Damon). They discover that their quarry has tagged along with a desperate gang of outlaws led by the notorious Ned Pepper (rather fittingly played by a spittle-flinging Barry Pepper), and the stakes are suddenly raised as high as the risks they face. Along the trail, they will bicker and banter and fall-out with one another ... almost continually. Truths will be learned and loyalties will be tested. But this will be a journey of self-discovery for all three, as much as it will be about the hunger for retribution as they finally catch up with their prey and the bullets begin to fly. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, this is the Western that their fans always knew they had hidden in their saddlebag … and it sure doesn't disappoint. Following the novel's impetus by having the story told to us by Mattie, and the action seen though her eyes, True Grit is a leisurely drama whose period ambience is best soaked up and then wallowed-in. It doesn't do anything different from Henry Hathaway’s earlier adaptation although, tonally, it is both darker and more pastoral. It harkens back to the quieter, starker Westerns like Tom Horn, and is no less satisfying for such atmosphere-drenched luxury.

    It is also an outstanding showcase for one of Hollywood’s most bankable young stallions in Damon, one of its most affecting new fillies in Steinfeld, and, of course, one of its most cherished and dependable thoroughbred champions in Bridges. Basically, this lot could just ride out into the hills and talk for a couple of hours, and the Coens would still have a modern classic on their hands.

    We’ve had awesome performances from youngsters in the movies many times before … but there is a unique gift for range and vitality and conviction that we are seeing lately in some newcomers that delivers a genuine frisson of surprised delight. With Chloe Moretz literally, and convincingly, kicking ass as a furious pint-size vigilante in Kick-Ass, and portraying age-less vampirical obsession and torment in Let Me In, it would have seemed improbable that another young lady could come along with such searing dedication and character investment so soon afterwards. But with such a bewitching and assured screen debut as this, Hailee Steinfeld who plays the young girl determined to bring her father’s killer to justice even if she has to do it herself, becomes one of Tinseltown’s great new hopes. Without once resorting to any childish histrionics, Steinfeld portrays Mattie as credibly bookish, confident yet naïve, immensely quick-witted single-minded, and verbally the superior force in any confrontation that doesn’t resort to gunplay, and yet also still affectingly vulnerable despite her outward maturity and assertiveness. You can’t understate this kind of ability. Unlike Kim Darby who played the character in 1969, who was in her early twenties and already a mother going through a messy divorce, Steinfeld is actually the right age for the character and, far from imbuing Mattie with any of the modern-day sass that would have buried the film completely, regardless of how good her leading men were, she plays Mattie as wilfully unusual, independent and forthright even by the standards of the times … but still clearly pertaining to the times and its social mores. Her clinical, practical and academic mind can easily wrap older folk, who are more set-in-their-ways, up in knots, pulling the rug from under them with a sharp tongue that is dedicated to the facts and to the truth and never a party to the conniving gullibility that they, to a one, seemed governed by. A prosaic, though somewhat cold epilogue sees an older, more brittle version of the girl that we have come to love and admire, and the mature Mattie actually comes across as being more akin to the dreaded Mrs Deagle from Gremlins! It's a neat expansion on the cosy finale of the Wayne and Darby relationship.

    There are those who say that the film belongs to her … but the truth is that this is an ensemble piece, through and through.

    Jeff Bridges becomes the frontier’s dependable carbuncle of the law, and you will adore him for it. Matt Damon butts in from time to time with a warped depiction of laconic egocentricity, and he makes a wonderfully nuanced foil for the wily old frontiersman. We will look more deeply at their characterisations later.

    For now, the remarkable thing about the story is that although it isn’t original to the Coen Brothers, it does feel exactly like a Coen Brothers film. The characters have all the offbeat qualities that we come to expect from their left-field pen. Little set-piece asides that give the impression of some greater meaning are revealed to have scant bearing on situations – merely serving to drench us still further with the required mood of time and place. The humour is more acutely observed and wryer than in Hathaway’s version, which favours a more overt approach – though it is reassuring that both versions still find a drunken man falling off a horse amusing. Vignettes such as that detailing the meeting with a grizzly bear on horseback, a grizzly bear that is soon revealed to be a travelling apothecary dressed in furs, are just quirky little additions that have no bearing (ahem) on the plot other than to furnish the atmosphere with that quintessential and highly tangible oddness that the Coens do so well. This particular sequence features one of the best period accents that I have ever heard and I don’t think that I have ever found the word “expectorant” so chucklesome as when growled by Ed Corbin, who is lurking somewhere there beneath all that fur – some of which is his own, I should add. A corpse hanging high up in the trees – almost as though a Predator has been at work – is dealt with equally as ambiguous a rationale, but when Mattie enquires as to why he was hung so high, it does provoke the classic retort from the Marshal that it was “Possibly in the belief that it would make him more dead.” And the casually violent, and wordless, retribution that Rooster wreaks upon a couple of Indian youths tormenting a mule is sure to promote grins of agreement all-round. I will say, however, that the verbal handicap La Boeuf receives after one violent shootout seems a touch indulgent, although it does allow Damon to wrestle very amusingly with that banjo-tweaking accent of his own for a bit.

    The triple hanging that greets Mattie when she first arrives in Fort Smith is given a terrific little jolt of blackly comic verve. Where the two white scoundrels are permitted time to wax lyrically remorseful about what has led to their imminent execution or to offer a valedictory final denunciation of their misspent time on Earth, the Indian amongst them, who has something no doubt profound to say about his lot, has a sack pulled down over his head so quickly that his last words are strangled before they are even uttered. You shouldn’t laugh – but you do. The shoot-off that a drunken Rooster and a tongue-mangled La Boeuf engage in perfectly in-keeping with the book, but it is lent a comic grandeur that humbles both men without ever allowing one or the other's vast ego to slip.

    Matt Damon is justifiably praised for playing against type with his depiction of the vainglorious Texas Ranger, a man whose ego-inflation can only be bested by Rooster, himself. Damon is a fabulous actor and no mistake. From the likes of Good Will Hunting, through his modern action-man credentials as Jason Bourne, to his one-man bolstering of the otherwise poor theological Clint Eastwood drama Hereafter, he has sought out differing roles that test his range and abilities …and, refreshingly, almost always find him more than capable of the task. His La Boeuf may as well be monikered Le Buffoon (or Le Biff, as folks round my neck of the woods would probably say), for all the lamentable bragging that he does. But this is also a man with principles and a set of values – “Ever stalwart!” as he is wont to self-congratulate – that are actually very commendable. He believes in himself even if no-one else does …and this is not entirely based on falsehoods. La Boeuf stands against Ned Pepper and his gang, all alone, or so he thinks, and his subsequent failure and injury in the ensuing fracas (“Well, that didn't pan out,” Rooster gloriously understates as he counts the bodies on the deck) can not really be held against him. His determination to catch Chaney for crimes other than the murder of Mattie’s father does not denigrate his purpose, and one of the film’s more poignant moments comes courtesy of his gentle refusal, further down the line, to persist with a venture that he deems to be futile. Damon is also very effective with plenty of in-context comedy. He happily sends himself up with many a verbal underpinning of his own grandiose foundations, and his sparring with the Marshal is often priceless. But the marvellous thing is how he can turn this around. The aforementioned let-down of the mission is one thing, but his deadpan delivery of such chuckle-worthy lines as “I have been seriously injured” and “I thought you were going to say that the sun was in your eyes … that is to say your eye!” are wonderfully counterpointed with his cliff-top assertion about Rooster’s wildly courageous climactic plan – “For his part … I fear it’s rash.” The Coen addition of the Ranger biting his own tongue almost clean-through provides plenty of scornful jibes from the Rooster, and the constant animosity between the pair is a never-ending source of accent-twanged fun.

    But we must come back to Jeff Bridges. As all the critics justifiably rally around Hailee Steinfeld and her exquisite performance, I find that it is still Rooster Cogburn who steals the show and whether you think that Bridges has just perfected his own idiosyncratic and ramshackle interpretation of who Portis created in his book, or merely channelled a hairier version of the Wayne personification of the character, it is indisputable that he has totally immersed himself in the role and come up with another winner of unorthodox heroism. Hollywood’s greatest hippy – Jack Prescott in King Kong, Lightfoot in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the Dude in The Big Lebowski, his Oscar-purloining Blake in Crazy Heart – Bridges is one of the most consistent and evergreen stars in the business. His last few years have been truly audacious, and his range has only gotten far wider. Many actors of his vintage and his calibre would have probably given up the ghost and begun to tread water by now, appearing in z-grade fodder and sloppy afternoon TV shows, and been quite thankful for the work. Even quality performers like Robert De Niro seem content to slum it in absolute dross if there is a pay check at the end of the ordeal. But Bridges is either extremely astute in his choices or simply has the Midas Touch that turns even celluloid slop to gold. We all agree that the first Iron Man was terrific, but Robert Downy Jnr’s charismatic turn as the dicky-tickered titanium superhero would have been wasted were it not for Bridges’ truly intimidating and alarmingly bald villain to bring balance to the mix. His weirdified appearance in it also assured that the new Tron didn’t bomb. Carefree and enervating, Bridges’ star, like Rooster's badge, never seems to tarnish.

    Cogburn is an irascible, anti-social curmudgeon. Bridges knows full well that he cannot play him as anything other. I still find it completely unbelievable that he didn’t view the Hathaway film beforehand (and even more so when it comes to the assertion that the Coens didn’t either), and even wearing his eye-patch on the other eye from Wayne seems like a deliberate ploy, but his portrayal is endlessly watchable and eminently quotable.

    We see him as a belligerent, grizzled old hangdog whose exploits can be viewed as either heroic or outrageously cavalier. His pride is there, but it is hidden from sight beneath a welter of booze, tobacco and long-gestated cynicism, and the Marshal has certainly seen better days. The bitterness of losing the War weighs heavily upon him, though this is only allowed to surface once in a swift flash-fire of protective contempt for how the Texas Ranger, who fought for the North, wouldn't you know it, treats one of his own grandiose recollections. If I was to stake a difference in style between Wayne and Bridges it would be that Bridges treats Rooster as more of a maverick than the Duke does. We may not adhere to the rascally behaviour of Wayne’s one-eyed sourpuss, but he is also more apparently “liked” by others than Bridges’ monocular marshal, who seems much happier in his own reclusive reverie. Bit by bit, however, we see layers of the revamped Rooster peeled away. Yet this is wisely tempered by not going too far. Bridges maintains a defensive barrier of gruff rebuttal towards La Boeuf’s incessant loquacity … though the simmering period brogue still makes for some classic retaliations and put-downs. Whereas Wayne didn’t always know when to keep his mouth shut and his drawl withdrawn, Bridges understands the gravity and power of silence and the measured timing of well-uttered dialogue. Best of all, though, he is able to convincingly play a drunk … and an angrily determined drunk, at that. Plus, he doesn't go all sappy at the end, either.

    But you have to hand it to an actor who knows that he has to deliver one of the most beloved and iconic action statements that the genre has to offer. And when Bridges growls that irresistible challenge to Ned Pepper in the final act, pulls his guns, takes the reins in his teeth and charges against the odds … you just know that the Duke would be proud.

    I have commented in previous coverage of the True Grit “mythos” that a mistake the Coen adaptation makes is that we don’t get to see Chaney until the final section. This not only lessens his provocative presence when compared to the Wayne version, which actually shows us the despicable act that instigates Mattie’s quest, but it also denies us more of the great Josh Brolin, who is able to invest what meagre screentime he is allotted with both a comedic and charismatic quirkiness, as well as a genuinely sinister desperation. It is great to see how he deals with the chance reunion he has with Mattie down by the river – a wonderful mixture of being surprised at her suddenly arriving in such a lonely and far off place and, indeed, an almost semi-pleasure at seeing the young girl again from the ranch he once worked on. His bemused reaction of mock arrogant defiance to her swift declaration of why she is really there is, beat for beat, the same as Jeff Corey's in the original, but Brolin somehow makes the exchange all the more hilarious. This is the showdown that we have been waiting for, and Chaney has been the phantom we have longed to see get taken down … and yet now that we have met him, this wanted killer has been reduced to a wide-eyed and gurning stooge that, to be honest, we quite like. Whilst I agree that this is a neat switch, I think I still prefer how Hathaway and screenwriter Marguerite Roberts dealt with Chaney by introducing him at the start and ensuring we understood precisely how dangerously unpredictable he could be.

    Heavy with authentic detail – the faces and the attire look appropriately weathered and worn, and the colours of Hollywood’s West are lost beneath multiple layers of drab furs, buckskins, coats and overcoats – the Coen vision is also parched of the old Technicolor smorgasbord. The fact that the Coens' regular DOP Roger Deakins’ cinematography is still typically wondrous is all the more remarkable when you consider that he has been tasked with embracing the dour locations of a cold and desolate wintry environment. There are no rapid snap-cut edits. There’s no shakey-cam. In fact, the film looks mighty sedate when compared to most examples of ADD movie-making that we see these days. The story is obviously dialogue and character-driven, and this allows Deakins to move with a deliberately tired and languid style that perfectly evokes the mood of the narrative. This is not a story in which our crusaders must combat environments any more hostile than a stiff breeze and a light dusting of snowflakes, yet we can feel the distance being covered and the bumps and bruises that occur along the way. The landscape folds around the more intimate nature of the tale without once ever looking like pretty set-dressing. In fact, it is possible that True Grit could be one of the gloomiest looking Westerns ever made if it wasn’t for such immaculate framing, some gorgeous shadow-play and lamp-light, and a rich smoothness during the relatively few action scenes. This isn't at all surprising coming from the man who lensed the equally lyrical The Assassination Of Jesse James and the landscape raptures of Thunderheart, as well as all those visually sublime Coen pictures. The film feels unhurried, which may go against the grain for some folks who want their manhunts to be fast and frantic ... but this pace is part of the unique character of the story, itself.

    Although what follows next will take us way over the border and deep into Spoiler County, I have already gone into great detail about the sequence I am about to describe in reviews for the Wayne version and its score from Elmer Bernstein, and in my coverage of Carter Burwell’s score for this incarnation, too. And, considering that their adaptation is extremely faithful to both source and well-known previous film, I feel quite justified in discussing it here as well. But, if you have not read those reviews and wish to avoid some pivotal plot developments then please leap over the next paragraph and don’t look back until you’ve seen the film for yourself.

    The most emphatic and exhilarating sequence in the book and in the original film comes when Rooster has to ride and run across miles of open country to get Mattie to safety after she has received a vicious snake-bite. Exciting, bravura and resolutely rousing in the John Wayne version, the Coens do something quite remarkable with their take on identical material. Treating the epic mercy-dash half in the woozy, surreal way in which the toxin-addled Mattie experiences it, and half as a detached observer running alongside her and the Marshal, they create a simply wonderful set-piece that is breathtaking in precisely its very low-key approach. In 1969, this was a crucial chapter of stoic selflessness and valour that left our hearts in our mouths. Now, it becomes charmingly matter-of-fact … and all the more heartbreaking because of it. There is the understated quality of the hallucination that Mattie has of Chaney getting away … it is an almost abstract element that is purely fleeting. Then there is the choked-up moment when Mattie’s devoted horse, Little Blackie, finally collapses and can run no more, despite the blade that Rooster has plunged into his flank to spur him on, followed by the shattering blast that puts him out of his exhausted and lame misery. Mattie’s anguished fighting-off of Rooster as he calmly tries to pick her up and carry her the rest of the way, and that diamond-starry night-sky that yawns over them. Finally, this gripping sequence shudders with that last gasp from Rooster, as he gets the attention of salvation with a couple of heavenward gunshots. “I’ve grown old,” he wheezes … and it is a bonafide kick in the guts. Only afterwards does this amazing sequence begin to hit home, worming into your soul and becoming even more memorable than Rooster's courageous charge against Ned Pepper.

    I’ve discussed Carter Burwell’s reflective and moving score for the film at length in its own CD review, but it is well worth reiterating how well it works with the sublime visuals and the moody, measured direction from the Coens. The interpretation of the Presbyterian hymns, most notably Leaning On The Everlasting Arms, that form the thematic backbone of the score provide a textural foundation that doesn’t showboat or sensationalise the events in that typical Western manner. Burwell only rarely rises to the conventions of the genre – in the scene when Mattie confounds the lawmen by valiantly riding across the river to join them in the manhunt and, best of all, when Rooster charges to glory against Ned Pepper and his gang in the meadow – but he still creates music that is powerfully rousing, consistently eloquent and surprisingly moving.

    After all the praise that has been heaped upon it, True Grit will inevitably disappoint some people. It is not an action film at all. It is not even packed with conventionally memorable encounters or overtly dazzlingly exchanges. There is a quiet intimacy to the tale that even subdues the mighty landscape that it traverses. This is not the big, old school sort of Western that many may anticipate, especially after that rather stirring trailer. And yet it weaves a saddle-sore spell of folkloric wisdom, just the same. It cocks six-shooters and repeating rifles and bodies tumble painfully from speeding horses. And in hushed tones it speaks of bravery and heroism, commitment and loyalty.

    The performances are entrancing. Barry Pepper supplies a scorchingly accurate impersonation of Robert Duvall, who played Ned Pepper in the original and he, too, becomes curiously likeable for a bad guy, just like Brolin's Tom Chaney. Brendan Gleeson's son, Domhnall, last seen in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, crops up as a wounded snitch in the notorious finger-snipping interrogation scene in an isolated cabin. Oh, and speaking of finger-snipping, look out for Day Of The Dead's hip-flask guzzling radio-man, Jarlath Conroy, as the undertaker who offers Mattie somewhere a tad uncomfortable to sleep when she comes to view her father's body.

    I think that it would be wrong to review the remake of True Grit as a separate entity to Hathaway's version, or as a separate “take” on the Portis novel. The films are just like the corn-bread cakes that fill Rooster’s saddle-bags – they both hail from the same seeds and are, pretty much, identical. Over the course of some comprehensive coverage I have gone to great lengths to explain the similarities and the differences, the pros and the cons of each incarnation of the original novel where most reviewers and critics that I have read have been far too quick and knee-jerk to promote the newer version as being the more faithful and, consequently, the superior one. Both film adaptations adhere very closely to the source. What one version doesn’t use from the book, the other does. In my considered opinion – and I love the story and the characters implicitly in both book and film – the Coens add material purely for the sake of differentiating their film from what came before, and this is possibly to their credit, but, rather more crucially, they alter some pivotal scenes – the action at the dug-out cabin and the nail-biting confrontation at the snake-pit, for example – for no good reason at all, and to the detriment of the film. This, of course, makes it sound like I prefer Hathaway’s far breezier adaptation over the Coens’, but the truth, as always, is much muddier and more convoluted than that. I think that both films are classic evocations of a witty, poignant and hauntingly told novel. If they weren’t both so similar to one another, then something would have gone horrendously wrong. The Coens' interpretation could so easily have gone down the road of radical “re-imagining”, and thankfully, it doesn’t make that gross error. But to promote their version as being the accurate and faithful one, as so many writers seem inclined to do, is doing Hathaway’s film a massive and unforgivable disservice. It is fair to say that the ’69 movie is a John Wayne movie, of course, but this shouldn’t override the fact that the Duke still only inhabits a character that seems to have been written entirely with him in mind. Bridges, as damn fine as he is in the role, is also only inhabiting a character that … aye, you know where I’m going with this … seems to be have been written just for John Wayne. And the fact that he does it so well, and so memorably, is testament to the kinship that Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn has to the iconic character of John Wayne, the human epitome of the mythical frontier, himself. When you praise Bridges for his terrific performance – and I am still amazed that his nomination for Best Actor at the 2011 Academy Awards didn't go all the way, as it did for John Wayne and his portrayal of the same character all those years before – you are actually praising Wayne all over again. You watch the two films, and the delivery of a great many lines is exactly the same – only the clothing and the positioning of that eye-patch differ.

    Therefore, to elevate True Grit, Coen-style, over the Hathaway film is something of a sham.

    Yet, to confuse things even further – and being a Gemini, I can’t help this two-minded style of critique, folks – I fully endorse the power and eloquence and sheer brilliance of this version of the story. Talky, thoughtful and wilfully offbeat, True Grit creates an unusual, but hypnotic vision of a world we all think we know inside-out. This is the “American” Western – happily crusty and rustic and heroic in one glance, ironic, mellow and revisionist in the next – and, under the Coens’ expert guidance, it seems as fresh, as witty and as captivating as it always did.

    True Grit is a magnificent tale, and we are blessed that it has now seen two classic interpretations. The Dude becomes the Duke … and it is a transformation that is well worth seeing.

    The Coens finally unholster their Western ... and it comes very highly recommended.