movie film review | chris tookey

True Grit

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  True Grit Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
7.31 /10
Jeff Bridges (AAN ), Hailee Steinfeld , Matt Damon
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Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen based on Charles Portis’ novel

Released: 2010
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 110

Superior western.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The Coen brothers’ rightly Oscar-nominated western is not so much a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, as a heroically faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s fine novel written a year earlier.
Many westerns are intent on telling us that nineteenth century cowboys were much the same as ourselves. True Grit takes the opposite approach, emphasising that they were brutish, ill-mannered and politically incorrect. It’s the first western I can recall in which the characters speak with a respect for language and sentence structure that seems authentically Dickensian.

Thus, a Texas ranger will complain to the hard-bitten heroine “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements”. And a US marshal will lament his lack of musical ability with the words “It is a sadness to me that I have sausage fingers that can not crowd on to a fretboard.” It’s a refreshingly long way from the grunted monosyllables in most horse operas.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also top-notch, with a restricted palette built around browns and greys, and a lovely feeling for wintry landscape.

The Coens are nothing if not film buffs, and their framings lovingly copy earlier movies, most noticeably John Ford’s The Searchers and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

But it’s still a Coen brothers film. The affection for curious speech patterns echoes Fargo; the shocking outbursts of violence recall No Country for Old Men; and their trademark quirkiness ensures that most of the minor supporting characters come across as eccentric, bordering on insane.

Matt Damon plays the arrogant Texas ranger LaBoeuf with more competence than Glen Campbell did in 1969, but he doesn’t seem entirely at home in the period. And, compared with the other, more colourful characters, he’s bland.

An even bigger disappointment, surprisingly, is Jeff Bridges (pictured left), who mumbles so much as the drunken US Marshal Rooster Cogburn that most of his dialogue is incomprehensible. Bridges is a respected actor with a fine track record, but this is self-indulgently hammy acting, nowhere near as unforced or convincing as John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance in the earlier picture.

The film’s chief asset is the previously unknown Hailee Steinfeld (pictured right), who at the age of 13 plays the film’s child-narrator and heroine, Mattie Ross, a kind of nineteenth-century precursor to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. It’s Mattie’s judgmentalism and precocious self-reliance that provide the plot impetus, as well as most of the humour and charm, when she hires Cogburn, a man with “true grit”, to track down the hoodlum (Josh Brolin) who murdered her beloved father.

Despite the stunning cinematography, Carter Burwell’s wistful score and the witty script, True Grit falls just short of being a mythic masterpiece. The Coens’ self-consciously cool irony and flippant nihilism are not ideally suited to a story that starts off with a Biblical quotation and explores notions of justice, revenge and retribution.

The Coens are too modern and detached fully to understand Mattie’s self-righteous vengefulness or Rooster’s growing empathy with her, so the film works better as knowing pastiche for film buffs, than it does as an emotionally involving drama for the general public. It’s worth at least one visit, though, and I shall probably go back to it.

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