FILM REVIEW: True Grit (2011)

True Grit (USA, 2011)
Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

Having built their reputation on a series of strange, quirky and often dark films, True Grit is the Coen brothers' first pure genre exercise. In adapting Charles Portis' novel for the big screen, they have created an elegantly crafted western with a number of good performances and a rousing soundtrack. But although this adaptation is more faithful to the source, its semi-skimmed relationship with the Coens' signature style means it can't be regarded as a complete success.

There are two clear reasons why True Grit would have appealed to the Coens. All of their films are in some way about money, whether it's Paul Newman trying to bankrupt the company in The Hudsucker Proxy or the conflict between commercial success and creative purity at the heart of Barton Fink. Though True Grit is a revenge story, there are financial elements to both the crime and the attempt to bring Tom Chaney to justice. Money crops up everywhere, from the amount Chaney stole and Mattie Ross' bartering over the ponies, to the $50 she offers Rooster Cogburn and the bounty waiting in Texas for LaBeouf.Secondly, True Grit shares the central theme of No Country for Old Men, namely someone thinking they have got away with the perfect crime and justice or vengeance eventually catching up with them. Josh Brolin plays the impulsive criminal in both films, although the nature of his perfect crime is different. Whereas as in No Country, he just happened to be there and got away with it because there were no witnesses, in True Grit his escape is guaranteed by a reluctance of bystanders to do the right thing.Running through True Grit is an attitude which is steeped as much in Biblical ideas of wrath and revenge as in the famous quote from Edmund Burke: "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." When Mattie Ross arrives in the town to collect her father's body, she is met with hostility, suspicion, nonchalance or apathy - and in the case of the saddler, all four at once. In these moments the Coens' knack for quirky characterisation comes through, particularly in the droll and deadpan undertaker. When Mattie asks if she can sleep at the funeral parlour, he replies: "if you wanted to sleep in a coffin... it would be alright."The irony of True Grit is that in a part of America which is increasingly civilised and lawful (there are actually fair trials rather than kangaroo courts and lynching), the one force that can deliver real justice is a cantankerous old drunk who frequently borders on incompetence. Jeff Bridges departs heavily from John Wayne's interpretation, playing Rooster Cogburn as the embodiment of the Old West, reluctantly girding its loins to dole out justice in a way which, while effective, is frowned upon by modern-day lawyers.

Mattie Ross, played with grace and dignity by Hailee Steinfeld, represents God's judgement channelled through the determination and innocence of a child. She is the meeting point between the God portrayed in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament: both are intolerant of sin and wrongdoing, but instead of fire and brimstone this is conveyed through innocence, purity and natural curiosity. This performance is again in contrast to the 1969 version, in which Mattie is 21 years old and already a wizened schoolmistress.The darkest and most interesting section of True Grit is its last 20 minutes, when we see the consequences of Mattie's vengeance (or search for justice - take your pick) catching up with her. Having pursued Chaney and achieved her goal, she falls into a dark pit and is bitten by a rattlesnake, an action which leads to her left arm being amputated. The Coens take the comeuppance of the revenge thriller's protagonist and use it to turn the whole idea of Biblical revenge on its head. Mattie may achieve the desired outcome, but that does not make her actions wholly right, and the act is not achieved without unforeseen sacrifice and undesired cost.The film is also beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, who won a BAFTA for his work. As on No Country, Deakins proves himself to have a great eye when it comes to westerns. He paints and captures the landscapes as arid and barren as you could possibly get, and the night shoots of Matt Damon being ambushed are particularly coherent considering both the wide angles and the limited natural light. The Coens are able to capture a whole range of elements in perfect detail, from the dry dusty ground kicked up by the horses trample to the glistening snow that surrounds our heroes as they track Chaney through the woods.But for all its visual and thematic coherence, this version of True Grit is not without its problems. As on No Country, there is the simple problem of unintelligible dialogue. Jeff Bridges is a great actor, but Rooster Cogburn's accent and beard are so thick that you simply can't make out everything he says, at least not the first time around.

The film seems to assume some pre-knowledge of the dialect and that the viewer can paraphrase their way through conversations to get a general understanding of what is going on. But even though Bridges' delivery doesn't throw us off completely, it's still irritating when we consider how many potential zingers are hidden in this character. Furthermore, if we assume the dialogue is only supposed to be a guide, then surely that invalidates the Coens' desire for a more faithful adaptation: why attempt to be faithful to the source if you're not going to let all the words from the book be heard?Then there is the relationship which the Coens take towards their work. In their previous films, they have put their unique stamp on what are superficially straightforward stories, immersing themselves in the genre and characters and coming up with something genuinely quirky. Sometimes this makes their films distinctive, other times extremely grating, but even in their slip-ups there is a conscious decision-making which flows throughout every shot and line.The problem with True Grit is that the Coens' approach is much more stand-offish, in a way which detriments the film. There are big moments of full-on quirkiness which aren't in the novel, the biggest being the man riding through the woods wearing a bear costume, with a beard like that of the young wizard in Howl's Moving Castle. But these moments of full-fat Coens characterisation come few and far between, and they are so noticeable that all the stuff in-between starts to feel a little bit too ordinary. As much humour as there is in the conflicts between Mattie, Rooster and LeBeouf, the film never feels like it is pushing the genre envelope in the way that No Country or Blood Simple did.In the end True Grit is an interesting but incidental work from the Coen brothers. It doesn't have the full-blown original stamp of their other films, for better or worse, and is perhaps testament to the fact that filmmakers shouldn't always treat their source material with kid gloves. But as a piece of filmmaking outside, it is more stylish and better made than the original and the performances are all of a high calibre. If nothing else, it's a much better attempt at a remake than their botched look at The Ladykillers.

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Enjoyable but hardly a full hand


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