When the Coen brothers are hot, they’re smokin’: Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, No Country For Old Men. These are movies I loved. In my view the boyz peaked with No Country, but have been off their game since. True Grit continues this trend – it’s quite enjoyable, but not much more. That is, unless you’re part of the chorus of critics who have canonised the Coens, in which case you’ll be looking for reasons to maintain your belief…and doubtless finding them.
The few reviews I’ve read have insisted on comparing this movie with the 1969 film of the same name starring John Wayne. Lawd knows why – perhaps because the earlier version wasn’t much by all accounts, and affords an opportunity for the True Believers to rave about this superior contemporary product…
Thing is, as the Coens have gone to some pains to point out, their movie is not a remake of the earlier one! Rather, it’s based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis. OK, so was the John Wayne movie, but there’s a difference between a remake of an older film and a new filmic interpretation of a novel. Too subtle a difference for many critics, it seems.
Whatever, I didn’t see the 1969 movie, so I ain’t gonna be comparing and contrasting nuttin’, awright? What you have here, y’all, is a pure assessment of the Coens’ movie on its own terms, uncorrupted by prior knowledge. How to turn a deficit into an asset, ay?
On with the show. What’s good are the lead characters and performances, the cinematography, and the meticulous recreation of the wild west frontier town environment. The weirdo TV western series Deadwood has set the bar pretty high here, but the Coens and crew have risen to the task and pulled off some stunning visuals. Who can know, since none of us were there, but you get the sense this is about as authentic a depiction of fabled Wild Westville as we’re ever gonna get this far down the track. Authentic, but heightened, so that there’s a hint of the surreal about it all. A Coen box ticked that we want ticked.
For the most part, though, they do this western straight, honouring the genre without their usual subversive touches. An exception is a jarring scene in which a roughneck rides into shot wearing a bear head and skin. Very Coens, but somehow try-hard and intrusive – needlessly so. A gratuitous bit o directorial branding, if you like.
Back to the characters. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld excels as 14 year old Mattie Ross, a feisty girl canny and intelligent beyond her years, with a cutting wit and a mission to avenge her unarmed father’s murder by cowardly gunman Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).
Jeff Bridges revels – some might claim indulges himself – in the role of the trigger-happy, hard-drinkin’, slovenly reprobate lawman Rooster Cogburn. Rooster regards himself as more than a mere representative and enforcer of the law – he is the law! He dispenses his brand of justice through his six-shooters and rifle, more often than not at a monetary as well as a mortal price. He’s basically a bounty hunter who has somehow gotten hold of a marshal’s badge. Not that his occupational booty has yielded him much material comfort. He dosses down in a narrow, skungy bed in the cluttered back room of the local general store, evidently routinely investing his ill-begotten bucks in whiskey. One gripe: Bridges chews his words, and sure that’s part of his character, but too often it’s a struggle to decipher his masticated utterings. One of the Coens’ great strengths is their writing. You want to hear the goddam dialogue!
Mattie, Rooster and boastful Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon, who seems a bit cramped in this role) form an uneasy alliance to go in hunt of Chaney and the outlaw gang he’s teamed up with. When they cross the river they leave the town behind and enter a sort of wild west otherworld, replete with the savage beauty of the landscape and malevolent human elements. And here’s where it all gets pretty ordinary. The narrative loses its tautness and starts to ramble and wander, and the tension of the tale dissipates. Disappointing. Think back to the nailbiting psycho trip of No Country For Old Men …whaddayadoin’ boyz?
OK, the story is already there in the novel, and maybe this is the problem – it’s nothing special. So why bother to turn this book into a film? Why not DIY, as usual?
Look, this review probably sounds more negative than I mean it to be. True Grit is a fun ride through mythologized territory, beautifully shot and performed, and there are some good lines. If you like westerns, it’s worth a look. Just don’t expect too much. It ain’t a genre standout, and it’s a long way short of the Coens at their best. And speaking of myth, I wonder if they’ve been seduced into believing in their own? Hopefully not – that’s a pitfall that’s claimed many an artist.
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