Film Review: True Grit

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[True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen, US, 2010, 110mins)

“The wicked flee where none pursueth.” So speaks the epigraph to True Grit, the long anticipated remake of the classic John Ford western from 1969 (itself an adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis) courtesy of the brothers Coen. The biblical quotation (from Proverbs 28:1) sets the tone for the film’s themes in which the wicked do indeed flee but are pursuethed and strong religious overtones raise questions of the morality of ‘an eye for an eye’ and the appropriate punishment for our sins. In True Grit, sooner or later, all sins are punished.

It is 1880, and the untamed plains of Northern Texas (what is now Oklahoma) are awash with thieves and vagabonds. 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives at the town where her father has been murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a man he had given work and shelter to. Ostensibly there to gather her father’s things and collect his body to return to the family home, Mattie’s real motivation is justice or failing that, vengeance. To track down her father’s killer Mattie seeks the assistance of U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a man who walks the line of legality like a tightrope, a man who despite his job description, takes no prisoners. Cogburn eventually agrees to the assignment and heads into the Indian Nations in search of his target, reluctantly assisted by self-important Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who has been tracking Chaney for some time. Despite Cogburn’s instructions Mattie accompanies the men on their mission and so unfolds a series of events that will see the unlikely trio face a test of their ‘grit’.

The Coen brothers’ use of landscape is one of the hallmarks of their distinctive style and the dusty plains of Texas are the perfect setting to exploit their talents. Whether under the beating sun in the harsh dry desert or in the gentle fall of the winter’s snow, the characters make their way through a succession of increasingly stunning shots, each frame is like a masterpiece. The aesthetic is not limited to simply pleasing the eye, as the costume design and make-up create are an authentic replica of the late 19th century west, all of which contribute to the engrossing world in which the film unfolds.

Adding to the authenticity and equally enthralling are the performances of the cast. Jeff Bridges seems to have taken the ‘grit’ of the title very seriously by performing the entire film with a mouthful of gravel; his Rooster Cogburn is gruff bordering at times on incomprehensible. This is clearly intentional as he plays the ageing Marshall as a babbling drunk who still maintains his skill and determination despite his advancing years and deteriorating liver. Bridges balances Cogburn’s ruthless nature with the fondness for Mattie which develops as the film goes on, making the character sympathetic and likeable despite his flaws. Matt Damon is also on good form as LaBoeuf, shifting between comic relief and genuine hero, as his somewhat goofy character shows that he is made of stronger stuff than it would initially seem. The real star of the show is undoubtedly Hailee Steinfeld, starring in her first feature film and repeatedly stealing scenes with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She masters the dialogue superbly, particularly in an early scene in which she bargains a man into buying back horses he had sold her father. It is impossible not to sympathise with her as she risks her life in order to seek justice, but far from being a one dimensional heroine her actions too come under scrutiny. Remember, no sin goes unpunished.

Dealing with a story which is not only a famous novel but has already been made into a film in no way diminishes the Coen brothers’ creativity, as they pepper the landscape with bizarre characters and scenarios, and the interplay between the three main characters is full of their trademark wit, ensuring that the story never becomes too heavy, while at the same time creating characters who are petty and argumentative yet honourable and ultimately human.

There may not be enough action to please fans of a ‘yee-haw, cowboys and Indians’ disposition, but while the film is pensive and often slow moving, there is always a sense of approaching peril which maintains an appropriate level of tension, and when the action scenes do come, they are richly rewarding. Fans of the original film will be pleased to note that the famous horseback shoot-out scene has been faithfully recreated, and stands out as one of the finest action sequences the Coens have ever produced. A timeless story of honour and redemption, True Grit not only does justice to its source material, but stands alongside the finest work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

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