Paramount's Blu-ray of True Grit rides proudly into town sporting a very handsome AVC transfer of the Coens' 2.35:1 frontier vision. This is a rustic, period-lacquered dream of a picture, folks, something that instantly captivates with its rich and incredibly detailed reproduction of Roger Deakins' stunning photography. The filmmakers weren't after the glowing and radiant Technicolor vibrancy of the Silver Age Westerns which, ironically enough were almost over at the time that Wayne's original version of True Grit came out – they wanted that earthy, grit-filled and overcast pallor that has been the visual aesthetic of choice since Clint Eastwood's autumnal splendours of Josey Wales, The Beguiled, Pale Rider and Unforgiven. As such, don't go expecting a colourful treat from their True Grit because primaries are appropriately forsaken in favour of the more dour mosaic of browns, tans, blacks and greys. But what is so apparent, right the way through, is the marvellous reality of the image that is presented here. This looks authentic, with the lighting deliberately taking advantage of the naturally occurring hues that the production encountered.
The image looks deep and three-dimensional and always eminently film-like. Grain adds an unmolested texture and there is no evidence of any artefacting, banding, edge enhancement, banding or noise taking place. The picture is clean as a whistle and doesn't possess anything that resembles unsightly processing. Blacks are very solid and form a strong and reliable foundation for the image. The night-time scenes set within cabins lit by flames and torches are very natural-looking. The shadows are deep and the glow of the flames bright and vivid against the prowling gloom. I will say that the exterior night-shots sometimes do not look as effective. There is a midnight blue cast that doesn't, to my eyes, appear all that convincing at times. A couple of shots of the star-field during the climactic race-for-life look artificial to me, but this was something that was apparent even in the theatrical print and is not a failing of the transfer here.
The contrast certainly seems to reflect the chilly low sunshine of the setting and the season. Light is keen on the characters' faces, and the landscape is often bathed in a shivery, though partially burnished glow. I will say that, personally, I think the contrast is a little too high. I saw True Grit a couple of times at the flicks and I was paying very close attention to the image with a notion of reviewing its subsequent BD transfer, and I don't recall it looking quite as high as this. But nor can I vouch for the correctness of the projected images that I saw on the big screen either. So this comes purely from my own perspective.
What no-one can complain about is the attention to detail, whether finite or distant. True Grit looks extremely well-defined. That old favourite of wiry facial hair is a keen advert for how the transfer handles intricate delineation, and Paramount's disc passes the test with no problems. This is a hairy and grizzled film, folks. But the material weave and the patterns in costumes, the grain in wood, the patina on guns and the engravings on their handles, and the texture of leather (look at Rooster's eye-patch) are also brilliantly rendered. Facial texture is certainly offered whether you want it or not. Rooster is a craggy delight. LaBeouf is much more groomed, but he still takes a battering. Chaney is appropriately wild and marked with that sinister blemish. And Lucky Ned Pepper is one skin-blighted, ripped-lipped, spit-dribbling mess. The buzzard-nibbled corpse that gets cut down from a tree and lies amid a scattering of pale, crispy dead leaves also exhibits some finite detail. And all of this is very capably handled by the disc. Distant figures have a keen definition to them, as well. The skirmish outside the cabin when Cogburn's plan doesn't quite “pan out” features a gaggle of characters seen from the Marshal's vantage point, and all illuminated by the Moon. This could have been an inky mire, but detail is still abundant. Likewise, the classic showdown in the meadow which, when seen from high up on the cliff by LaBoeuf and Mattie, still offers sharpness and clarity even of the far-off characters and horses.
Asides from my observations regarding the contrast, True Grit is very nearly reference material and earns a good, strong 9 out of 10.
First off, True Grit is not a bombastic, gun-blasting sort of film. There are not too many battles to rock the house. But, and this is the crucial thing, when the bullets are flying, and the horses charging about, this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track really delivers the goods and should certainly satisfy its fans.
Laced with some interesting accents and vowel-mangling voices, True Grit revels in the intricacies of its dialogue. Good thing that the audio mix delivers an utterly spot-on reproduction of it, then. Speech is extremely well prioritised and integrated. Whispered words and barked threats alike find their way across the soundscape with clarity and character. Carter Burwell's score is given a splendid placement within the track. You can hear incredibly rich and detailed instrumentation, with the piano notes during several key moments coming across as though the player is right there in front of you. Strings gather strength and slide gracefully across a wide frontal array. The score, apart from that glorious Four Against One cue, is gentle and surprisingly delicate … and the transfer copes admirably with its intricacies.
But let's get back to the action.
When it comes, the track is very impressive indeed. Long periods of travelogue and waiting-around put you in a calm state of rural tranquillity. Thus, when pistols and rifles are cocked and triggers are squeezed, the resulting blasts carry a shocking amount of weight, velocity and, most evocatively, echo. We feel the huge emptiness of the hills, ridges and high meadows because of the terrific sense of distance that the echoes of the shots seem to cover as the track sends the reverb around the speakers. The bullets don't shred the air like they do in, say, The Expendables or Black Hawk Down, but they definitely punch through it with some alarming and heart-jolting vigour. Even if we don't always get that sound of startled birds taking flight – although we do on a couple of occasions – you can easily imagine that any wildlife in your front or back garden has probably just had a heart-attack.
There is a great effect created when the snake-bitten Mattie is being carried through the woods by Rooster on Little Blackie for the passage of the trees on either side of her. The sound made is like the rhythmic rushing of blood that you sometimes get in your ears. The sound of running water flows (literally) with a cool and refreshing conviction. Shut your eyes and you'll swear you've got a stream coursing through your living room, with each gurgle and splash perfectly placed within the mix. Other elements of environmental ambience comes across well, such as birdsong and the creaking of high boughs. The hustle and bustle of people and wagons in Fort Smith is subtle and never over-embellished, but it emanates convincingly from all around. Once again, the track reveals pin-point directionality and positioning without ever being demonstrative or drawing deliberate attention to itself.
This isn't a track that is going to test the subwoofer all that much, although bass is perfectly well supplied when necessary, augmenting the various confrontations with a pleasing degree of sudden heft – a rider shot off his horse and his head subsequently finding a nasty resting place on a rock, for instance.
So, overall, True Grit does exceptionally well for itself in audio terms. Another strong 9 out of 10.
Behind the Scenes with Mattie Ross is a five-minute chat with a clearly enthusiastic Hailee Steinfeld, who recounts how she won the coveted role, her preparation (horse riding and firing guns) and her feelings about the production. This is the sort of thing that could have been an embarrassment, but the young actress is so damn likeable that she instantly wins us over. It is actually quite reassuring to hear the teenager remark about the loss of signal on her mobile phone in some of the locations in Austin and New Mexico – in other words, stardom hasn't gone to her head. The piece is punctuated with production footage and even a snippet from her screen-test.
Costume-designer Mary Zophres discusses frontier fashions in an 8-minute featurette entitled Outfitting the Old West: Buckskins, Chaps and Cowboy Hats. This is good stuff for those interested in period attire and getting the real look as opposed to the traditional Hollywood image of the cowboy, because we get a little history lesson thrown in too. Of particular note is how Rooster's costume was fashioned and styled, and we also get to hear from Bridges who praises the work and attention to detail that Zophres and her crew had. Matt Damon and Barry Pepper pop up as well to talk about their rather more comical outfits – the swaggering flair of LaBeouf's buckskins and the woolly chaps of Lucky Ned.
We've seen the clothes, so let's look at the hardware now. In Colts, Winchesters & Remingtons: The Guns of a Post-Civil War Western, we get to hear about the firepower being hefted around by the characters from Property Master, Keith Walters. Although only lasting for four minutes, this is another nice little piece that looks at Mattie's colossal Colt Dragoon, the Sharps Carbine of LaBeouf and the various other weapons, and their personalised traits, and we hear how obtaining imported reproductions is the best idea when going for vintage boom-sticks.
Various producers and set designers discuss how they turned an old railroad town in Grainger, Texas into the bustling new frontier community of Fort Smith where Mattie comes to take care of her father's business. This is really good stuff that packs a lot of information into the 11-minute running time. We see how the original buildings were customised and dressed and hear how the roads were surfaced and weathered. Telephone poles and other modern accoutrements were hidden and new (old) façades erected over the town's structures. The design of the vintage railway station and tracks and the incorporation of real locomotives proves to be the icing on the cake.
Sadly, we drop the ball with the five-minute pop-promo featurette that is The Cast. All the main stars – Bridges, Damon, Steinfeld, Brolin and Pepper – talk about their characters and mainly big one another up as much as possible. This is also heavily interspersed with clips from the film.
This whole thing – the Duke's and the Dude's versions of True Grit, that is – hails from one man – Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of. True Grit was only his second novel, published in 1968 and an immediate bestseller, and to date, he has only written three others. The man is a shy and retiring type, not prone to interviews or the limelight, and not exactly proactive when it comes to getting his own books known and sold. This half-hour documentary ropes-in a number of other writers who wax lyrical about this modern Mark Twain and his profound legacy upon the Great American Novel. Portis, himself, is only seen in a brief clip of him receiving an award, but the power of his simple but resonant writing is something that some of these participants actually struggle to get across. Although a worthy tribute to the man, this can't quite avoid being a touch high-brow and occasionally mawkish.
What you would have thought would be a tremendous little feature, The Cinematography Of True Grit, is nothing more than another fawn-fest that showers the great Roger Deakins with praise for all of … a couple of minutes. Quite honestly, these bonus features started off so well … but sort of lost steam by the end. After this, all we get is the film's theatrical trailer.
Although I like a fair bit of what is on offer here, this is still a relatively meagre assortment. Just a 5 out of 10 from me, folks.
Achingly authentic and rich in character, the Coens' first genuine full-blooded Western is a thing of slow-burn beauty.
Their adaptation digs deep into the wonderful period eloquence of Charles Portis' bold dialogue and decorates the screen with some classic and iconic imagery. Rooster Cogburn rides again, and one of the favourite sons of the mythical American frontier finds expert personification in the grizzled guise of man-of-the-moment, Jeff Bridges. But he isn't the only one who nails the part. Sublime support comes courtesy of Matt Damon, who brilliantly sends himself up in a fusion of parody and heroism, and dazzling newcomer Hailee Steinfeld very capably holds her own against the two old-hands. And the rest of the film is as evocatively suffused with oddballs, varmints, Indians, outlaws and high-rise corpses as you could possibly wish for.
Light on action, it might be, but this pleasantly left-field Western is an experience that is best savoured slowly. When the big moment comes, and Rooster bites on the reins and digs his spurs in, there is such a giddy sense of euphoria that you just know the ghost of John Wayne has taken off his hat to Bridges' one-man stampede. And that famed “race for life” is simply incredible and the sort of sequence that replays itself in your mind, over and over again. Yet, True Grit remains a mood piece in that quintessential Coen style. I will always argue that Charles Portis created the one-eyed Marshal with the Duke in mind … but it is also tempting to imagine that he wrote the book with the idea that the idiosyncratic movie-making siblings would, one day, come along and film it for him.
Paramount's region-free US Blu-ray offers a wonderful hi-def transfer that captures the ravishing photography of Roger Deakins to stunning effect. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also full of subtle delights that genuinely bolster the experience into a combination of the soothingly pastoral and the suddenly percussive and violent. The extras are mainly brief, but there is still some good stuff on offer here. Overall, this is an excellent release for what is already being hailed as a modern classic.
Quietly awesome, True Grit has certainly been worth the wait and comes with a huge recommendation from me.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.