True Grit

Jeff Bridges reinvents the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brother’s vastly entertaining horse opera True Grit, more a re-working of Charles Portis’ original novel than a straight remake of Henry Hathaway’s John Wayne starring 1960s Western.

As the film opens, 14 year old Mattie Ross (played with tremendous facility by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in a western town to enlist the help of Bridge’s one-eyed, hard-drinking Marshal to help her find and kill Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot her father dead in cold blood. Mattie might be young, but she is feisty, able to defeat all comers in argument with the unerring application of logic. No sooner has she identified his body, and put his coffin on the train, than she gets down to business.

First, she settles her late father’s accounts, selling his horses back to the vendor and paying off his debts. Then she tracks down Cogburn because she has heard that he has ‘true grit’, a tough, battle-scarred quality that she prizes above all others. Having convinced the grizzled veteran to take the job, and now clad in her father’s oversize coat and ten-gallon hat, Mattie insists on going with Cogburn to track Chaney through the badlands. Joining them on the quest is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), an elaborately moustachioed, rawhide-wearing Texas Ranger who hopes to bag Chaney himself, for a large reward.

Bridges, who distinguishes himself from Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance by wearing his eye-patch on the other eye, is superb as the whiskey-addled cowpoke, delivering his razor-sharp dialogue in a captivating growl. Damon, whose character slips in and out of the story when required, is likewise in fine form as the vain Texan, quick to take umbrage at any perceived slight. But the film belongs to Steinfeld, who holds her own against her more experienced co-stars, with the relationship she forges with Bridges carrying the story along at a tremendous lick.

The Coens direct True Grit with a light touch, their whip-crack dialogue providing unexpected laughs that contrast with the tough story, the stark violence and the bleak desert scrub setting. Their first true Western, following the zero-sum game of No Country For Old Men, True Grit is a place of spilled blood and severe consequence. Much like Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which the Coens quote both visually and musically, True Grit is a parable of good versus evil, only here the lines between the two are blurred to the point of invisibility. Nobody is entirely good, but nobody is entirely bad either. These are everyday heroes formed by circumstances and by accident, not ready-made to fit an archetype and not looking for or deserving of a place in the pantheon.

As they have done throughout their careers, the Coen's complete their tale with a post-script that casts what has gone before in a new light, set in the campground of a travelling Wild West show, many years later. Here, a grown-up Mattie sees what showmen and hucksters made of the Old West of her youth, costumed cowboys in fringed suede with a supporting cast of luridly painted natives. As always, the Coens returning collaborators add considerably to the director’s ambitions, with Roger Deakins’ striking widescreen photography and Carter Burwell’s full-blooded score, a selection of old hymns and reels, adding another layer of gloss to what is one of the year’s best films.

The Fighter

Arriving in cinemas laden with Oscar nominations, David O. Russell’s The Fighter is an old-fashioned, unashamedly crowd-pleasing boxing story, flawlessly acted and brilliantly directed, that tells the true story of welterweight “Irish” Micky Ward’s unlikely journey to a world championship belt.

Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) once went ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard, briefly knocking him down, and has been regaling the neighbourhood with the story for years. By the time the story begins Dicky, “The Pride of Lowell”, has descended to drug addiction, spending most of his days cowering in an abandoned house, sucking on a pipe. He’s still recalling his glory days, but this time it’s to a documentary film crew who are following him around. Dicky has been training his younger brother Micky (Mark Wahlberg) for years, getting him ready for local undercard bouts and dreaming of a crack at a championship.

Micky’s domineering mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is also his manager, setting up his fights and creaming a percentage from his meagre winnings. When his two advisors allow him to take a beating from a fighter who outweighs him by 20 pounds, Micky starts to face facts: he’s got a powerful left hook but no stamina. Without professional training he will never win anything. And he has got to get as far away from his family as possible. Then, along comes Micky’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), the no-nonsense bartender from the local tavern, to act as a buffer between the fighter and his dysfunctional family, restore his confidence and get him back in the ring.

If there was an Oscar for Originality, The Fighter wouldn't win it; the magic of this story is all in the telling. Russell, working with four credited screenwriters, constructs the film in part as a fake documentary, employing the device of having the characters followed around by a team of filmmakers and talking to camera but using the resultant footage in a particularly inventive and dramatically satisfying way. The Fighter has bags of style but is never showy, carefully weaving strands of fact and fiction while retaining a tough, pacy core of storytelling.

Bale’s performance is the standout in an excellent cast, brilliantly capturing Dicky’s jerky physicality, the last few dregs of his boxing fitness topped up with stimulant drugs. His appearance ebbs and flows throughout the story, at times appearing skeletal to the point of disappearing, his eyes little more than glinting marbles. Bale is superb but his efforts are matched by Leo as the Massachusetts Lady Macbeth, elbowing her way to the best position, supported by her shrieking chorus of her seven cauldron-stirring daughters. Wahlberg might be the supposed hero but Mickey is very much a silent presence in his own story. Bullied by his mother and despairing of his feckless brother, Mickey only wants enough peace and quiet to train and box. Wahlberg smartly understates his performance, anchoring the chaos boiling around him with shrugged shoulders and stoical grins.

Even before a youtube video of him screaming at Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees emerged, Russell had developed a reputation for being a difficult director. The critical and commercial failure of that film (released in 2004 and Russell’s last) didn’t help his cause, making The Fighter is as much a triumphant comeback for its battered director as it is for Irish Micky.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan sees the writer and director turn his yellow eye to the fiercely competitive world of classical ballet. Natalie Portman plays a high-stepping ingénue whose body and mind collapse under the strain of taking on a dual role in a modern retelling of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Following the enforced retirement of his prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), domineering choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is looking to re-launch his company with a bold production of Swan Lake, which will have one dancer play both the virginal White Swan and the sensual Black, Odette and Odile.

Graceful, ambitious Nina Sayers (Portman) is the obvious choice for the White Swan, but Leroy believes she is too sweet and wholesome to play the dual role. Nina lives with her overbearing mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a failed dancer turned amateur artist who maintains a tight hold on much of her daughter’s life. When lithe and sultry newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the production, Nina faces competition for the lead role for the first time in her career. Lily lacks Nina’s precision and determination but has charisma and sexual energy to burn.

The pressure is too much. When the charismatic Leroy tries to kiss her, something in Nina cracks and she starts to see visions of herself as a dark-eyed doppelganger, hears whispered ghostly voices and feels strange new sexual impulses. Half starved, in constant pain and hopelessly isolated, Nina’s dark feelings fester into something more malignant; crippling paranoia, breathless panic and a desire to hurt those around her.

In its best moments, Black Swan combines the Technicolor melodrama of Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes with the lip-smacking camp of Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and the backstage hysterics of A Chorus Line, a newly-fused hybrid of opera and horror, archly theatrical and claustrophobically intense. Framed initially as an oestrogen-soaked drama, then as a psychological thriller, Black Swan eventually reverts to Grand Guignol, devoted to splashing blood and crunching bones, broken hearts and fractured minds and all within a diamond-forming atmosphere of pressure and strain.

As in The Red Shoes, the simple pleasure Nina finds in dancing slowly contorts into a nightmarish compulsion to put her new feelings into physical gestures, however dangerous and devastating they prove to be. Portman is captivating as Nina; her ecstatically wounded expression capturing the confusion of a repressed young woman adrift in a world of danger and carnality with frightening veracity. The rest of the cast are extraordinary, the standout being Kunis’ manipulative minx, every word and gesture open to interpretation as a compliment or a threat.

It seems absurd to describe a film about ballet as jumpy but Black Swan is an intensely disturbing experience, dazzling and disorienting in equal measure. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera never settles, winding around the characters like an unseen ghost. Aronofsky’s characters are monstrously hateful and mean, without a single redeeming presence. Nina is in almost constant physical pain, rarely at rest and suffering cramps and strains that match her ever-deteriorating psyche. Her visions are haunted with ghosts, demons and doubles. Aronofsy's film is pitch dark, perhaps so dark that the formal beauty in the film is overwhelmed by shadow. Regardless, this is must-see cinema, an overpowering sensory experience pushed to the ragged edge by Portman’s extraordinary performance.