Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper, Domnhall Gleeson
Director(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writer(s): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Original Score: Carter Burwell
Running Time: 110 Mins.
True Grit marks the first time the Coens have tackled a straight down the middle old school western, it may seem odd given their style and class as some of America’s best film-makers for them not to have divulged in America’s most classic genre before. Although let us not forget No Country For Old Men was very much a modern-western, using a classic novel and branding it with their own unique, and brilliant stamp, it oozed excellence on every front. So it comes as little surprise True Grit makes for a double whammy…
Slightly mis-sold as action packed through the trailers this is one film that is, unsurprising given the directors, that is all about character, script and direction, once more Roger Deakins and the Coens craft some truly iconic shots that show how gorgeous the western can potentially be. A genre that has long sat on the back-burner it every so often throws up something special, The Three Burials of Melquides Estrada, Unforgiven and under-rated gem Open Range, True Grit matches each and every one of those, quite some feat considering their calibre, again this is no surprise but a nice reassurance that there is at least one (well two) director that will consistently impress with their range, a range that sees them always make their make, one thing you can say about a Coen film is that it is always unmistakably a Coen film!
Shootouts are few and far between in a story that is the second stab at Charles’ Portis’ novel, the first came in the 60’s with a starring role for John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn (a drunk, shabby man who shoots first and asks questions later), Cogburn is hired by Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) to hunt down all-round bud ‘un Chaney (Brolin), having murdered Mattie’s father, along for the ride is LaBeouf, a flash Texas Ranger who loves himself just a little too much. The story remains unchanged with much of the dialogue ripped from the novel, characters speak in authentic “western” dialogue, no abbreviations or shortened phrases here, and the quick fire banter between characters is a joy with the Coen’s usual and unique black humour running through each and every utterance.
As good as the dialogue is though it would be nothing if not for the men, and young lady, speaking it. We all know Bridges can immerse himself in a role, and he does so here with the usual aplomb, slurring his words by way of a whiskey induced stupor yet always seeming like a dominant presence, quick on the draw when need be, as his opposite Damon as LaBeouf is all preened-up, flashy jacket and spurs to match, you may think him all speak and no action…you’d be wrong. Holding these two huge, and magnetic, performers to sway is Steinfeld as Mattie, she has enough sass to compete in the battle of wits with accountants, undertakers and particularly LaBeouf and Rooster. Matching their inital put-downs blow for blow, it is only in the end she becomes a damsel in distress, yet never loses her composure always standing up to the most fearsome of men.
Talking of fearsome men, Chaney and Pepper (Brolin and Barry Pepper) are superb, and nigh-on unrecognisable, in their admittedly and shamefully brief roles, both exude menace yet steer well clear of comic book strereotypes despite the mangled and bedraggled appearance, they are no more shabby than Rooster which adds to the film a nice sense of authenticity (one of the many, many strengths). As these men enter the fray the stakes are raised by a notch, or ten, and the Coens as ever deal with the short sharp bursts of action with realism and brutality, no bullet is stray and every blow hurts, whether it be from a gun or an emotional blow…the sucker punch comes in the final scenes giving all that has come before a great deal of poignancy, holding true to the brutal grace of True Grit.
Unashamedly a classic western in every sense of the word, the Coens have however branded their stamp onto every frame with the usual eccentricities (odd support characters, a sardonic sense of humour, extraordinary character depth) but it is combining these two elements that True Grit has smouldered its way into the realms of being a classic film…it’s up there with the best of them.