March 7, 2011

27.02: TRUE GRIT

Them's readin' words!
Do you remember your first Coen Brothers film? I do. It was Fargo. I cannot remember how I saw it (likely on TV), but I remember how absolutely dumbstruck I was by it. The dialogue, the economical (and brutal) use of violence and that wicked dark humour captivated me. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sure, some of their more recent efforts (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) were less then successful, with many a person wondering where that once magical Coen touch had gone. But since the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men they have shown they’re still on top form. Theirs is still a singular vision projected into our brains, with these late-career missteps being nothing more or less than that.

Before we continue any further a disclaimer: I have not seen the John Wayne starring original adaptation, nor read the original Charles Portis novel. While this precludes me from discussing any differences between the previous adaptation and the source material, I (hope I) can focus instead on the Coen brothers’ True Grit as its own film.

And what a film. The Coens grace us with their first “proper” Western – as in, set in the 1800’s with six shooters, grizzled lawmen, honour and dirt. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross. She’s 14 years old, and she’s out for vengeance. Her Poppa was shot down by the drunken and cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who lit out of town on a stolen horse and who will not be pursued by the authorities. But Miss Ross is not some wilting desert flower, or helpless maiden or child. No, she is a supremely self-confident young woman, demanding a measure of justice from the uncaring world. A scene where she confounds a poor shopkeeper with her intelligence, determination and moxie neatly sums her up; she brow beats, crunches numbers and threatens legal action and, when she does eventually have her way, a victorious child-like smile breaks out.

Hailee Steinfeld as the whip-smart but head-strong centre of the film is phenomenal. She’s a fast-talkin’, no-nonsense kinda gal who isn’t fully aware of just how far out of her depth she is. Not that that would bother her – as she proves by forwarding a deep river all by herself, she is one determined lass. Jeff Bridges is, of course, great as the grizzled and damaged “one-eyed fat bastard” Rooster Cogburn. He is a booze-soaked U.S. Marshall, hardened from years of violence. As opposed to, say, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny however, he knows exactly what he is and does not run from it. Bridges’ Cogburn seems to accept his empty, lonely life for what it is; that is, until Mattie Ross hires him and manages to bring out some remaining compassion and humanity within him. This is not done in some cloying, overly-sentimental fashion however – this is the Coen brothers we’re dealing with! Cogburn’s gentler, more human side is drawn out slowly and elegantly.

Damon is a welcome addition to the Coen Ensemble of character actors, with his jingly-jangling Texas Ranger LaBouef (pronounced “La Beef”) coming across as a puffed up and faintly menacing character in his first scenes. Due in no small part to Damon’s charisma, you begin to actually sympathise with him come half-way. Brolin returns from the brothers’ previous, more contemporary Western to play the cowardly and vicious Tom Chaney. He manages to do much with little – he really only appears in two scenes. Barry Pepper meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable as the leader of the outlaws, Lucky Ned.

But as with any Coen brothers film, it’s not really the actors who are the stars. It’s the Coens themselves, complemented once again by Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography and Carter Burwell’s score. The Coens continue to confound mainstream expectations, while also including all their own little touches that mark a film as coming from the brainsof Joel and Ethan. True Grit continues their love of dialogue and a well turned phrase, with all characters having thei own choice lines. Their depiction of violence is also typically sharp and brutal. But it is the smaller moments – two vacant Indian children at a store, the vaguely surreal meeting of a medicine man dressed in a bearskin, La Bouef’s tinkling spurs – that stand out.

True Grit is another fine film, in a long line of fine films, from the brothers Coen. Every detail, every nuance, is given the same careful attention. This is a finely crafted (please note that: crafted, not made) film, that is also a heckuva lot of fun. I truly cannot wait to see where the Coens take us next.

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