Friday, 4 February 2011

True Grit (2010)

The Coens have claimed that this is a straight adaptation of the book rather than a remake of the 1969 version. It probably does hew a little closer to the book than the original, but that still sounds like damage control. John Wayne casts such a long shadow over the Western genre that it's hard not to see this film and compare it to the original. They had to justify it to all the fans, like the Star Trek remake with all the nerd-pacification alternate-timeline bullshit. Those old folks only make it to the cinema once or twice a year, so if you want some of that sweet vintage cheddar then you've got to make it worth their while. It must have worked too, because this film has made some serious bank.

Personally though, I'm not a big fan of John Wayne. That's not such a controversial opinion these days, at least not as much as it used to be, but I have to put it out there so you know that my enjoyment of the orginal is tempered by it's John-Wayne-iness. Although he does a great job delivering that line "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!". I'm also going to refrain from comparing this film to the original too much, mainly because it's been since years I've seen it and so I'm bound to misremember a few details and fuck it up.

If you haven't heard of this movie, here's the lowdown. A 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires the meanest U.S. Marshall she can find, Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track down the outlaw Tom Chaney that done killed her father. Along the way she demonstrates that she has True Grit. The end. It's not a particularly original or amitious story, but that suits me just fine. I don't need every film I see to shift paradigms, revolutionise the filmatic language and re-invent cinema as we know it. Sometimes I just want something done well, which is something the Coen brothers are very, very good at.

Jeff Bridges is just so damn great as Rooster. It's definitely more of a character performance than John Wayne's John Wayne impression. He delivers all of his lines in a mush-mouthed croak, sounding a little like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. He seems like a genuine alcoholic fuck-up. I liked that a lot, it makes it that much more surprising when he turns out be as genuinely capable as his reputation suggests (although I guess not that surprising if you've read the book or seen the movie). Having an actual 14-year-old play a 14-year-old seems like it could backfire, but Hailee Steinfeld is really good, believably headstrong yet still naive and vulnerable. She's definitely less annoying than the 22-at-the-time Kim Darby.

Matt Damon plays a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf, who is a blowhard and kind of an asshole, but he has some good scenes and a lot of funny lines. He teams up with Rooster so they can take Chaney back to Texas and split the $50 bounty on his head. Mattie is upset since she wants Chaney to be hung for her father's murder and not for murdering some Texan senator and his dog. It's a great dilemma because it's somewhat understandable but also illustrates how stubborn she is about her principles.

I've heard some criticisms that the bad guys are pretty underdeveloped, which I can understand. The murder of Mattie's father takes place off-screen and you never actually see Tom Chaney (as played by Josh Brolin) until over an hour into the movie. I didn't really mind too much, as the changes they've made have very much turned the film into Mattie's own story. When she stumbles across Tom Chaney out of sheer dumb luck, we are as surprised and excited as she is because it's the first time we've seen him too. Even though you don't see the bad guys too much they still manage to fit in a few little moments of nuance, especially for "Lucky" Ned Pepper (as played by "Of-Medium-Luck" Barry Pepper) who is little more reasonable than his bad teeth and saliva-flecked shouting might suggest.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Coen Brothers have turned out another awesome movie. Beautifully shot, acted etc. Yawn. What else is new? It follows the template of most other modern revisionist Westerns, in that it's grittier and more violent, far more morally ambiguous and doesn't shy away from ugly historical truths. Like the Coen brothers' other films, it takes a "warts and all" approach and uses things like casual racism to build an atmosphere as well as wrestle out a few darkly comic moments.

I don't have too much more to say about this film. It's good; go see it. I don't really like using the word "overrated" because it's essentially meaningless, but I think this film is in danger of being over-praised. It's a great movie that I would recommend to anyone without hesitation, but I don't think it's going to have a lasting impact. I don't think it will supplant the original in most people's minds either, even though I like it a lot better.

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