Wolfie at the movies: True Grit

TRUE GRIT (15) ****

Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld
Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen
R.T. 110 min.

A 14 year old girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires an old, drunken but tough U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find the man who killed her father. She decides that the only way to make the plan work is to accompany Cogburn in pursuit of the murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) with some reluctant help from a World-weary Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).

They say:

“Remakes that outdo the original are as rare as a brimstone preacher in a saloon bar…but this leaves Henry Hathaway’s 60s version stone dead”. Sky Movies

“I’m surprised the Coens made this film, so unlike their other work, except in quality”. Chicago Sun-Times
“It meanders along, convinced of its own idiosyncratic suavity, never venturing out of its makers’ comfort zones”. Daily Telegraph

“Once you settle in with the film that’s in front of you, instead of the one you were expecting, True Grit draws you in as fully as the Coens’ best work”. Miami Herald

Wolfie says:

On my very first trip to the United States, I was lucky enough to take a flight from New York to San Francisco on a 20/20 vision clear sunny day in a plane flying low enough for me to get a real feel for the vastness and the variety of a nation that I had only really seen before in movies and cowboy TV shows.
I was hoping that the captain might give me a few hints at where we were from time to time but he only made one comment during the flight and that was to tell us, in an emotionally reverential voice,  that we were currently flying directly over the home of the late John Wayne, the Duke who was, I was led to believe, as near as America gets to royalty. I felt disloyal sitting there, somewhere over America, remembering how in my youth, John Wayne represented a reactionary and repressive father-figure at a  time when the States was teaching me, from afar, about youth rebellion and the search for freedom.

I was wrong about the man in many ways, for sure, but I am still no John Wayne fan. Once though, recovering from a mild dose of ‘flu, I did stumble on an afternoon television transmission of his Oscar-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie True Grit and I had to hand it to him – it was a virtuoso display of his best qualities as an actor and he dominated the screen throughout this jovial romp but conventionally shot Henry Hathaway film. I am pleased the old Duke got that Oscar and that I got over my prejudice.

It was such a famous film that, along with so many modern day re-makes, I did wonder why the inspired and boundary redefining Coen Brothers would want to make a new version of the old Duke’s warhorse.
I also questioned Jeff Bridges’ judgement in putting himself up against the old icon. It was to be an unlikely contest between the Duke and the Dude – but why?

I needn’t have worried and my regard for the Coen brothers’ work remained intact with this melancholy but funny, epic but intimate, passionate but ironic film which is far from a showcase for one glittering performance.

They have made a film about the Old West in the true spirit of the best in the Western genre – it is a brooding, dying World where heroics are needed and where pioneering really is a life or death situation. Nothing is made easy for the protagonists on their hunt for a murderer through the often desolate, cold and unwelcoming landscape that was Oklahoma Indian territory but that was shot for this film, magnificently, on moody and wintery Texas locations.

In true Coen Brothers style, this land is mostly deserted but whenever someone comes into view they are bizarrely eccentric, odd loners struggling to make sense of an inhospitable environment. None are odder than the weirdly poignant man who arrives on the scene incarcerated in a full bear skin with a corpse strung over his horse. The outlaw gangs and the “respectable” Arkansas small-town folk are just as eccentric, real and forsaken, it seems and each cameo role is given its quirky moment to shine. In such vivid company, the billed stars do well to hold their own but the increasingly versatile Matt Damon makes a convincingly world-weary Texas Ranger and Josh Brolin fills his relatively short screen-time with humour, pathos and menace as the sinner on the run, Tom Chaney.

If this land is a place of life and death, it is death that usually prevails – as, of  course, it always will and, even though this film is ultimately a comedy, and often a gentle one at that, it is full of disturbing images where movie deaths really look like death and where danger really feels like danger.

Jeff Bridges, ostensibly the star of the show, just gets better and better as he gets older and his Rooster Cogburn has nothing to fear from his famous predecessor. One of Jeff Bridges’ most attractive qualities is his seemingly relaxed and natural way with the screen – almost as if he doesn’t really care what we think. His Rooster slurs his words through too much whisky, too much languour, too little energy and he just don’t give a damn if we can hear him or not. Often I couldn’t hear everything he said but it didn’t matter because the significant words, the articulation, and most of the true grit, comes from a 14 year old girl who knows just what she means and just what she wants. The young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, is sprung from nowhere into the staring role in this movie and she is simply terrific – a tough cookie thrown into a series of terrible situations but never quite letting us forget that she is also just a kid who would also like to go out there and play with her little brother but who is also never a Hollywood cutie. Those that have read the original novel, Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968) say that the new movie is much closer to the spirit of the original with its mix of irony and heroics. I can’t wait to read it now. I am also reminded of that first flight over the States – the Coen Brothers show us that the land i imagined from watching childhood cowboy films was indeed inspiring but also extremely tough.

If you are still wondering what John Wayne did with the part, then take a look at the 1969 movie trailer – admire him though you might, you will soon see that, in pure movie terms, there is simply no contest and you will appreciate that the Coen Brothers have added another classic to their impressive filmography.

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