Review: TRUE GRIT - The Best Western In Years!

rating: 4

Joel and Ethan Coen are certainly no strangers to adapting literary works for the screen - their recent A Serious Man was a loose reinterpretation of The Book of Job, and prior to that they had mighty Oscar success with the widely acclaimed Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country For Old Men - and so a betting man would certainly make the case that were they to make their next film another literary adaptation, it would follow as another agreeably quirky retooling of a classic text. Charles Portis' 1968 novel True Grit, hastily adapted into the star vehicle that finally won John Wayne his solitary Oscar, is brought back to the screen by the Coens with a keener regard for the source material, and while strangely bereft of their expected curiosities, it is also one of their warmest, most pleasantly straightforward pictures to date. 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has recently suffered the loss of her father, murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Keen for vengeance, she aims to recruit reluctant alcoholic marauder Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring him to justice, while Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has himself been tracking Chaney for a separate crime and offers Ross his services. After much squabbling, the three of them ultimately decide to combine their efforts to trek across the sparse Old West and arrest -- not kill, Mattie insists -- Chaney. Though with No Country For Old Men the Coens showed themselves keen revisers of the Western mythos, True Grit is a far more simple-minded affair, ably revelling in the sheer showmanship of the very type of brash gunslinger films that Wayne himself once made famous. What makes True Grit truly brilliant, however, isn't just the Coens' reverence for the style and tone of the Westerns of yesteryear, but the John Ford-inspired manner in which they manage to both epitomise and eulogise the myth of the Old West (with a trajectory similar to, though more subtle than Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). There is for sure little of that trademark Coen irony, but they have instead leavened a thoroughly entertaining, card-carrying genre film that still succeeds thanks to a sharp script, uniformly strong performances, and typically immaculate production values. There's no denying the awe of the statuesque Jeff Bridges standing tall amid Roger Deakins' stately cinematography (which must, on his ninth Oscar nomination, finally secure him the win), but the show is barely stolen by young lead Hailiee Steinfeld, whose performance -- rightly nominated alongside her larger-than-life co-star -- is a revelation of know-it-all sass, imbued with just enough naivety so that she doesn't come off as creepily, even unrealistically precocious. Don't be fooled by the Supporting Actress nomination (done primarily for strategic reasons, given how crowded the Best Actress field is); this is a leading role in every sense of the word, and Steinfeld proves herself one of the most talented and eminently likeable young talents to emerge in recent years. For many, though, seeing how Bridges fills John Wayne's immense shoes will be the attraction, and why not? Try though purists might to pre-judge this contemporary iteration, the Coens, aided by the mighty Roger Deakins, have done their very best to mythologise Bridges' Cogburn in his own right; the sight of Bridges, astride a horse, donning the eye patch, cigarette drooping, guns poised, is pure iconography, and the Brothers milk it for all it's worth, to the extent that even Wayne die-hards are liable to admit the merits of this update. If there's anything to rail against, it is probably the sparse, non-threatening nature of the narrative - there isn't all that much incident to deal with, and Brolin's Chaney (along with his gang, including a cameo by Barry Pepper) proves disappointingly stoic compared to his much-ballyhooed reputation, but then perhaps that's the point. Nevertheless, on the strength of the performances, and the debt owed to the weighty characterisation, this isn't of too much consequence, for the act of revenge is never really foregrounded anyway. While on surface-level a revenge story, there is a more touching tale of redemption and a tender one of coming-of-age here, both of which the Coens tackle with their usual austerity. Though lacking the staple idiosyncrasy of their previous work, True Grit is a no less valid -- or entertaining -- outing for the brothers Coen, and soars on the quality of Bridges and Steinfeld's work in particular, though Damon is no slouch either. For a divertingly old-school slice of classic entertainment, look no further than this beautifully composed harkening back to simpler days. True Grit opens in the U.K. today.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.