Wednesday, 16 February 2011

True Grit (2010, US, Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers have already shown that there's life in this 'old horse' and that Western characters can still rattle and hiss on-screen like a viper's nest. Javier Bardem's poisonous performance as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was proof beyond doubt that Western villains were still relevant and engaging, even in a contemporary American setting. True Grit, although taking us back to a more classic Old West, is further evidence that this big American stud ain't winded yet.

Like all good Westerns, this is a story of retribution and redemption. The story unfolds as Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) remembers her quest to avenge the murder of her father at the hands of the outlaw, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Her search for vengeance leads her to U.S. Marshall Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn, whom she enlists to find Chaney and bring him to justice.

True Grit is the story of Mattie's 'coming of age' as much as it is her search for vengeance. She takes comfort from the father-figures that her companions grow to become as she tries to escape a life of stifling decency that waits to imprison her on her return home. This is the only glimpse into the world of 'real' men that she might ever get and she is stubborn enough to believe that she has what it takes to live in this world. She intends to immortalize her father's name by casting his lore with men who have 'true grit' and serve justice.

Steinfeld's performance is brilliant as the irritating and eloquent Mattie, but it was her closing chapter that felt the most awkward and poorly handled in the film. It never really felt clear whether she found what she was looking for and the ending felt rushed and insensitive. Although it was her story, it never felt like she was the star and I found Rooster's search for redemption more engaging than Mattie's journey to avenge her father.

Jeff Bridges is excellent as Rooster Cogburn and shoots down in cold-blood those who might accuse him of being a one-trick pony. It was always going to be hard to swallow gulpin' whisky instead of white Russians and although there are sometimes signs that The Dude still resides behind the eye-patch, it only serves to soften the tough leather of Rooster's spurious moral fiber. Bridges is, as ever, darkly comic, which makes him an excellent Marshall of the Coen's screenwriting flair. Rooster's two-part introduction to the plot clearly highlights how conflicted he is, but Bridges makes it easy for the audience to share Mattie Ross' (Steinfeld) insightful and fearless understanding that there is a man of integrity and nobility peeking out from behind the eye-patch.

Perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. He is immediately endearing, ambiguous and charismatic and Bridges and Damon sparkle in a double-act that supplies comic relief, perfectly balanced with a camaraderie that men with 'grit' entrust their survival to. Damon is the perfect supporting actor never stealing the lime-light, but beautifully countering the drunken and volatile Rooster. I wouldn't be surprised to see Damon nominated for Best Supporting Role at this year's Oscars.

True Grit is a polished and entertaining study in spurs. The Coens have carefully spun a yarn that shows a masterful understanding of Western conventions, while remembering that cinema should be entertaining and fun. Although the witty, comic and borderline-slapstick script and performances tame the wildness of the West, there is enough action and gruesomeness to lend it authority and authenticity. It has all the hallmarks of great film-makers, who have yet to put a foot wrong. If you don't like Westerns, there is enough here to make you change you mind.


  1. I don't know why I'm always surprised to read that the Coen's did this movie. For some reason (probably my brain is too full for new info) that particular detail never seems to stick in my brain. I know it used to be in there, because when I read that True Grit is a Coen Brothers movie in your post, I thought, "Oh yeah, that's right!"

    Of course, I make it a point to see every one of their movies, and I enjoy them all (to one extent or another). Now, while the revelation is fresh in my brainpan, I shall dart over to NetFlix and add it to my queue... brb...

    Gah, it's not out yet. Wait... lol, for crying out loud, it's still in the theater. Dayum, where's my head at? Maybe I'll go see it this weekend.

    Crap, I'm rambling again. /END

  2. You make a good point here: there is a vital piece of information missing on my review. Next time I will be sure to include the release information.

    Thanks for reading!