Feb 12, 2011

True Grit [15]

Dir: Ethan Coen / Joel Coen
I have neither seen the 1969 film of True Grit, nor read the Charles Portis novel on which both that film and this one are based, so I came to Joel and Ethan Coen's first traditional western fresh, without either the novel or the spectre of The Duke to colour my response to it.

The tale itself is a pretty straightforward story of vengeance sought. What makes it more unusual are the characters. The avenger is 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was murdered by a man in his employ named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Unable to give chase on her own she hires US marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and joins him on Chaney's trail. They are also joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for crimes committed prior to the shooting of Mattie's father.

The Coen Brothers are a rare breed. They began their careers as outsiders; quirky indie filmmakers whose acclaimed work played to a relatively small cult audience, but lately, like many of the leading indie writers and directors of their generation, they have expanded their reach to a mainstream audience and much wider critical and awards plaudits. What's so special about how they've done it is that they haven't lost what made them unique as far back as Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, even in a film as otherwise mainstream as this one there are little moments, lines, characters and scenes, dotted through the piece that feel as though they could only ever come from the Coen brothers. However, only one of these things ever feels out of place in the film, they've managed to be both utterly original and make a truly classical film, an incredible circle to have squared.

Visually, True Grit is a wonder. Roger Deakins has been the brothers regular cinematographer for two decades, and he's just earned his ninth Oscar nomination for this film, it's easy to see why. More than any other working DP, Deakins has a painterly eye; his light is beautiful and artful, but never seems contrived, and he can use it to bring out any quality you like, from the soft, almost dreamlike, image of Mattie's shot father that opens the film to the inky silhouette of Rooster that comes, late on, to Mattie's rescue. There is, of course, more to the visual side of True Grit than what Deakins does, the Coens are past masters of cinema, they understand exactly how to tell a story with a great economy of images. This film never feels slow, in fact it moves fast and near relentlessly once Mattie, Rooster and LaBeouf set off, but the camera and cutting keep a sedate rhythm, allowing you to take time to drink in the detail in the images, from the construction of period to the feel of the images, which have an almost tangible encrustation of mud, sweat, and quite often of whiskey. It also means that when action does happen, and the cutting does ramp up for a moment, it's exciting, and pulls you into the moment.

True Grit has one of those increasingly rare screenplays which appears to be written by someone whose love for and interest in words comes through with every line. Of course, the credit can't entirely go to the Coens, because by all accounts the dialogue is often very close to Charles Portis' novel, but they put it into an idiom and a syntax that feel both entirely of their world, and entirely appropriate to that of the characters. There is a style of speech that stretches across the whole movie, but each character also has their own definable voice, perhaps the most compelling is Mattie's; almost supernaturally assured and intelligent for fourteen, which gives her many of the film's finest lines, especially in the several scenes in which she runs verbal rings around a horse trader.

The Coen brothers are now in the rather rarefied position that they can get just about anyone to be in their movies, and they've assembled a stellar collection of talent here. Bridges is pretty far from his usual charming self as the tough, grizzled, drunkard Cogburn, but he's likeable because now and then he gives us a little glimpse beneath the bluster as he warms up to Mattie as she proves herself on the trail. Damon is the outwardly charming, sometimes even smarmy, flipside to Cogburn. LaBeouf's could easily be a thin role, along largely for plot convenience, but Damon gives him presence and personality, and in a scene at the end of the second act there's a lovely, palpable, bond with Mattie.

The villains only have small roles in the film, but Barry Pepper reminds us what an interesting actor he can be and Josh Brolin continues his career renaissance as Chaney. Chaney is both as loathsome as you might expect and better drawn than you could hope. In a few short scenes Brolin comes up with a wide range of elements to the character, so much so that you'll almost wish you'd seen a whole film about him as well. Among the rest of the supporting cast there is the usual spread of interesting character actors, with perhaps the most notable being Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan, who is also in a small role in Never Let Me Go and, mark my words, is a name to watch.

All this said, True Grit belongs to one person, and that's Hailee Steinfeld. Just thirteen when she made this, her first film, she's now probably the frontrunner for what would be an entirely deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It's category fraud, of course. Steinfeld's Mattie is the heart and soul of the film, apart from brief bookends she's in every scene, and the whole film is seen through her. She is extraordinary in the role, the toughness she projects seems genuine, and yet so does the vulnerability, at times she seems - again credibly - far beyond her years, but she's also allowed to be a kid, notably in one lovely scene in which she offers to tell Cogburn and LaBeouf a ghost story. That Steinfeld pulls all this off totally naturally, without coming off as remotely actorly or precocious, is truly remarkable. It's a great performance, and one that will take her far, Oscar or no Oscar.

There are a couple of stumbles along True Grit's path, small ones, but still. At times Bridges is a little broad as Cogburn, pushing the old soak act a little far, and one scene allows him to go totally overboard as Cogburn and LaBeouf hold an impromptu target shooting contest. This scene slows the film to a stop, and feels completely out of place in the darker tale being told here, it's the only sustained patch of the film that just doesn't work. I could also have done without the coda, it adds little to the story and sends the film out on a slightly blah note.

However, these are small stumbles, and True Grit is a great film, the Coens best since No Country For Old Men in fact, and it absolutely demands to be seen at the cinema.

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