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True Grit (2011, USA)

21/02/2011

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen    Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin

Not so much a remake of the much loved (but seriously flawed) 1969 version starring John Wayne but rather a new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, the Coen’s take on a young girl’s quest to avenge the death of her father runs rings around the earlier film. It’s not that the ’69 version is bad, it really isn’t, but it is seriously let down by the performances (or lack thereof) of John Wayne as the grizzled US Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and Glen Campbell as the Texas Ranger La Bouef (or La Beef as he prefers to be known). How Wayne walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for it is a mystery to me. It’s a shame really, because the rest of the film is actually really rather good.

Without giving too much away, the plot concerns Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), a fourteen year old girl who is mature beyond her years and sets out to avenge the cowardly murder of her father by his former employee Tom Chaney (Brolin). As Chaney has fled to the Indian Territories the local Sheriff has no jurisdiction and refers Mattie to the US Marshalls. She enlists the services of Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), an eccentric, alcoholic, surly Marshall. Chaney is also being pursued by Texas Ranger La Bouef (Damon) and so the trio form an unlikely alliance to find Chaney and make him answer for his crimes.

It’s a quiet film. Calm and considered. But when the peace is shattered by action it erupts in chaos and fury. The violence never lasts long but with every body that hits the ground you can feel something change, mostly in Mattie whose constant exposure to death from the outset irrevocably alters her. For all her matter-of-fact attitude to life and insistence on being treated as an equal by the lawmen she is still a young girl trying to deal with her father’s death the only way she knows how and she is unprepared for the realities of her plan of vengeance. Steinfeld is extraordinary in the role. At only fourteen herself, the whole film rests on her shoulders and she carries the responsibility admirably. If she keeps up this level of performance she has an amazing future ahead of her.

The rest of the cast are equally excellent. Bridges’ take on Cogburn is a million miles away from the wooden, stilted effort by Wayne that earned him that Oscar. He seems born to play the gruff, curmudgeonly Marshall who forms a paternal bond with Mattie despite his best efforts to keep her at a distance. Damon is almost unrecognisable as La Bouef (in a good way) and the friction between them as they relentlessly needle each other for their inadequacies, real or presumed, is superb. It’s not just the heroes that put in a good showing, the villains have their fair share of fine actors among them. Brolin’s Chaney is a suitably weasily, spiritless scumbag, unwilling to take responsibility for the path he has chosen. Barry Pepper’s ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper is the only obvious reference I can see to the ’69 version, his performance channelling Robert Duvall from the earlier film. This is no bad thing, he does it extremely well.

The end result is a typically Coen Brothers blend of dark, dry humour, beautiful visual imagery and savage violence all tied together with a haunting score from their go-to composer Carter Burwell. It reminded me a lot, at least in terms of feel, of the Coen’s 1996 film (and one of my favourites of their films) Fargo. There was something about the wide open spaces and the notion of men doing evil acts in the name of money that seemed to echo Fargo’s barren snow scapes and sordid criminality. Again this is no bad thing and simply serves as evidence of the consistent level of quality that Joel and Ethan Coen bring to cinema.

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