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.

1 comment:

John said...

* with thanks to reader Richard E Joyce for a correction on the placement of Rooster's eyepatch.