Thursday, 3 March 2011

'True Grit' review:

The last few years, since the Oscar-winning 'No Country for Old Men', have seen the Coen brothers rebound spectacularly from the dispiriting mediocrity of 'Intolerable Cruelty' and 'The Ladykillers'. In fact, having come out from the other side of that period of creative stagnation, they are arguably now held in higher esteem than ever before, with the duo releasing films with unprecedented regularity and virtually guaranteed a Best Picture nomination every year. Their latest is no different with 'True Grit' - an adaptation of the Charles Portis novel famously made into a 1969 film starring John Wayne - nominated in ten categories at the recent Academy Awards. Although if failed to secure a single statuette on the night, 'True Grit' is an accomplished film and by far their biggest box office success, so far earning over $200 million worldwide.

In it Jeff Bridges renews his relationship with the Coens, for whom he famously played 'The Dude' in 'The Big Lebowski', starring as alcoholic, wayward US Marshal Rooster Cogburn - the role that earned Wayne his Oscar. He is ably supported by Matt Damon and Josh Brolin as well as the impressive (Oscar nominated) newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the film's narrator Mattie Ross. Ross is a shrewd, quick-witted and idealistic fourteen year old who reacts to the murder of her father - at the hands of an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Brolin) - by enlisting the help of Cogburn after hearing that he is a ruthless man of "grit". With him she fearlessly sets off into the wilderness where they are joined in their mission by a vain and self-satisfied Texas Ranger (Damon).

The language of Portis' novel is a perfect fit for the Coens, with their fondness for colloquialisms and absurdity. For instance, the fast-talking Miss. Ross would not be out of place in many of their previous movies, especially in a scene where her persistence and intellect see her out-haggle a perplexed stable owner. It reminded me of all the other great scenes of customer-salesperson confrontation in their work - in 'Fargo', 'Raising Arizona', 'O Brother Where Art Thou' and, of course, 'No Country' - with clever word play and small-town sensibilities as ever at the forefront. And as with every feature since they penned the screenplay for Sam Raimi's 1985 effort 'Crimewave', much of the dialogue is dryly, sometimes blackly, comic.

Another early scene sees a silver-tongued lawyer interrogating Cogburn in court, with a sly command of language similar to Tony Shaloub's Freddy Riedenschneider in 'The Man Who Wasn't There' or to Clooney's character in 'Intolerable Cruelty'. Again and again as with 'No Country' - even though we are watching a faithful adaptation of a novel - familiar Coen-esque character archetypes emerge unmistakably, discovered in the source material rather than invented. Though if these are perhaps merely superficial comparisons made by a lifelong fan, more vital continuity can be found in Roger Deakins' peerless work as the film's cinematographer and Carter Burwell's restrained and effective handling of the score. "Restrained" is really the key adjective when talking about 'True Grit', which is about as straightforward a story as the Coens have told. It is economical, seemingly effortless filmmaking that verges on the poetic.

Jeff Bridges offers a less sanitised version of Cogburn than the one made famous by Wayne: his alcoholism has clearly taken its toll on his health and his speech is slurred. Though he benefits from inheriting the role in a version of the novel which is willing to explore its darker elements. The Henry Hathaway directed adaptation of '69 (which I do enjoy) retains some of the dark edge - especially in Kim Darby's performance as Ross - but this feels more by accident than design, as key plot elements and dialogue lifted from the novel tease at a moral complexity at the story's heart. The Coen's version understands its source text better and goes to those ambiguous places, though this isn't 'Kill Bill Goes West' either. The Coens haven't made a cold-blooded revenge flick, but a story about the way revenge and blood-lust deform a person's soul.

By fulfilling her desire to see Chaney dead, Ross descends into the metaphorical hell represented by a snake pit and we find, from a bitter-sweet closing monologue, that her life afterwards has come to be defined by this chapter of her life. Like the one-eyed Cogburn, she is forever physically deformed, whilst she is also a spinster. The ultimate tragedy of 'True Grit' is that it's the story of a young, bright and precocious girl damaged more by the violence she has perpetrated and witnessed in her grief than by the catalytic sinful act: death of her father. It is this aspect of the tale that the Coens hone in on, albeit subtly, which makes 'True Grit' the opposite of a John Wayne film in many ways: at its core it is a humanist, wholly non-preachy anti-death penalty film.

I've oft heard it said that the Coens are heartless storytellers: that they don't like their characters and that they are cynical about people. I don't buy into that view at all and if I did I wouldn't be a fan. The Coen brothers, for me anyway, are defined by their willingness to look at all the cruelty of the human experience through the lens of absurdity and stupidity - a bit like the satire Chris Morris or Armando Iannucci. People aren't evil or good in Coen brothers movies, they usually just don't know any better. Bad things are done by people in a state of panic (most murders in Coen brothers movies occur this way) and pre-planned acts of inhumanity always find their way back to the often hapless perpetrator (think of Macy's Jerry Lundegaard in 'Fargo'). Even if, in this case, she is a little girl avenging her father's murder - a goal many filmmakers would find unproblematic.

The Coen brother's films are not only among the best made, most sharply written of the modern age, but they are actually also among the most moral, the most honest and least blithely pessimistic films about our species. 'True Grit' is just such a film and a damn fine one. A one-eyed drunk should be able to see that.

I saw 'True Grit' open the Berlin Film Festival back in February and it has been out in the UK for several weeks since then, having been rated a '15' by the BBFC. Here is something I wrote about the press conference from Berlin.

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