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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

True Grit: Yet more proof that the Western genre isn't quite (red) dead just yet

Written by Sam BF Taylor

Watching True Grit, one thing is clear: It is a no holds barred love letter to the Wild West. The Great West. A story faithfully recounted years down the line by the deceptively innocent Mattie Ross, she tells a story that reminisces about a time when the West still had a romance to it – that whilst it once hustled and bustled with deceit and treachery, Washington’s rule was fast becoming well, the law of the land. Thematically, the film’s very similar to last year’s videogame blockbuster, Red Dead Redemption, and it’s a refreshing reminder in both cases that all it really takes to reignite an ailing genre is genuine enthusiasm in the plot and the characters from those involved in a film or a game’s production. Like Red Dead, True Grit is gripping, sharply scripted, and at times very funny, and subsequently should be regarded as one of the Coen’s best films, easily equal to, if not surpassing Miller’s Crossing, A Serious Man or even Fargo.

Very much a contemporary film, The Coen’s spin on this era seems to be a purer form of 2007’s No Country For Old Men bleak, thrilling tale – and yet it does make us question what lies at the very heart of a Western. 

Whilst some may argue that there is a specific time period, or involvement in the ‘Spaghetti Western’ movement that allow a film to count as truly western in it’s content, The Coen brothers have explicitly stated that they have not seen the original adaptation of True Grit (Henry Hathaway, 1969) since it’s release – and those that’ve read Charles Portis’ book will attest to the level of authenticity on show. For those that have, it can be hard to forget John Wayne’s iconic Rooster Cogburn – a grouchy, hardened veteran of the West, and whilst there was certainly a wry sense of knowing in Wayne’s portrayal, Jeff Bridges plays the part with a level of humility we have rarely seen from him as an actor. He recognises an innocence he’s long since forgotten in the young Mattie Ross, played with a convincing sense of justice and maturity by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who once again proves the notion that the Coen’s are superb at casting, as well as writing, producing and directing. By having the character align much more closely to the Mattie in the book, they are able to attribute a sense of fear and wonder in equal measures to her that was masked by Kim Darby’s performance in the 1969 version, one that ultimately detracted from the relationship Cogburn builds with the character. This is not a problem here though, and the relationship between Bridges and Steinfeld is engaging to watch, as the unlikely pair go after Mattie’s father’s killer.

A review of True Grit wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf - a Texas ranger that is equally funny as he is admirable. Damon is often underrated as a character actor, but here his ‘pro-nown-see-a-shuns’ are endearing, and represent the askew approach The Coens tend to take when dealing with authoritative figures. He resembles the LaBoeuf of the book closely, and the dialogue between he and Cogburn is some of the best the film has to offer. 

True Grit, the original book, is very close to my heart, and by choosing to adapt it (in the purest sense of the word, in an industry bursting at the seams with sub-par remakes and sequels), the Coen’s prove once again that they are both willing to take chances, and to stray from their comfort zone – qualities that should be found in any good director. It is a fitting homage to a book that often gets overlooked for the Henry Hathaway  film, and whilst Wayne may have won the Best Actor Oscar some forty years ago, in hindsight, the original adaptation surrounding his performance is loose, awkwardly paced, and subsequently doesn’t live up to that of it’s source material. This reimagining has streamlined the experience to help us focus on what really matters – the bonds that form between the characters – and whilst it can be thrilling to say the least, the directing pair have exceeded in putting a unique Coenian spin on proceedings, instilling True Grit with enough trademark wit, oddball-supporting-character curiosity and heart to allow the film to be instantly held in such high regards as the other greats in their catalogue – one that continues to grow and grow.”

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