14 February 2011


The last of the big over-delayed Oscar contenders finally arrived in the UK on Friday, and it's the one I've been most eagerly anticipating. There seems to be something of a weird backlash against modern Coen brothers films, but I personally think No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man are great films. I also enjoy Westerns, so True Grit would seem ideal for my tastes.

When Frank Ross is murdered in cold blood over a gambling dispute, his daughter Mattie wants retribution. The killer, Tom Chaney, has long since skipped town. Nobody seems particularly keen to pursue Chaney, so Mattie hires a hard-bitten US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to hunt him down. Also in pursuit of the killer is a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, and he accompanies Mattie and Cogburn as they head out on the frontier in search of justice.

The overwhelming impression that True Grit left me with was that it had gone by too soon. It's 110 minutes long and it feels much shorter. Multiple viewings of this thing may be needed just to fully take everything in, but let's be frank from the beginning- outings with the Coen brothers tend to end abruptly. We remember how things wound up at the close of those films I named above, and without spoiling anything, there's a similar grinding halt to the action here, followed by a quite disparate postscript. Maybe it's something I need to leave to grow on me, but I really didn't enjoy the ending of this one. A shame really, because the rest of it is excellent.

As a film, it's possibly the most conventional thing Joel and Ethan Coen have ever done. It feels like a part of the classical tradition of Westerns, doing less new stuff with the genre than No Country for Old Men did a few years ago but still managing to utterly submerge me all the way through. The Coens' gallows humour serves the story well, rousing much laughter throughout but also lending itself to brutal moments of violence, as in so much of their oeuvre.

Surprisingly, to me at least, the main character turns out to be Mattie Ross. While Oscar might have nominated Hailee Steinfeld in the Best Supporting Actress category, she is undoubtedly the protagonist here, and Steinfeld is the standout in a cast of very good and much more experienced actors. A line can be drawn from her performance to that of Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, showing the same obstinacy and intelligence that Mark Zuckerburg is imbued with in a film set over a century later. And Steinfeld is only 14 years old.

The rest of the cast are just as important, mind. Jeff Bridges is a little mumbly, but reliably magnetic as Rooster Cogburn. The Dude quickly dispels whatever notions you might have of the Duke in that role, at least for as long as you're submerged in this new rendition. Matt Damon is also very impressive as the prideful LaBoeuf, making an indecisive character very engaging at the same time, and holding his own in exchanges of machismo with Bridges. And while Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are held back until late in the proceedings, their respective roles should not be understated- at the very least, Brolin does a much better job with a weird voice in the old West than he did last time around.

The surreal touches of the Coens' previous work are more sparse this time around, but they're still there- witness the man who speaks only in barnyard noises, or the image of a bear riding a horse. The look of the film is consistent with their previous stuff though, largely due to the presence of their erstwhile cinematographer Roger Deakins. The films he's worked on always look gorgeous, and if anyone needs to win an Oscar this month, it's him- True Grit marks his ninth nomination for Best Cinematography, and yet he's never won. Actually, mark the film in for Best Sound Design and/or Editing too- if you actually notice a film's sound design and editing as I did with this one, you know someone's doing something special.

After accidentally getting a clutch of Oscar nominations last year with A Serious Man, their most personal project ever, the Coens go for something a little more conventional in True Grit. "Conventional" should not scan as "typical" though, because the film still stands out, even after the barrage of awards contenders we've had recently. The cast and the standard of the production are fantastic, and only the very ending could be called dissatisfying. I can't speak for how it measures up to the original (it's on my to-watch pile, honest), but I can tell you that the brevity of pace and the sheer boisterous entertainment value of this adaptation left me yearning to revisit it at the nearest possible opportunity.

True Grit is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen True Grit, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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