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True Grit

It’s undeniably difficult to know what to say about the latest Coen Brothers effort. It’s pretty much flawless, far, far better than the ‘original’ John Wayne vehicle and much more faithful (apparently) to Charles Portis’ source novel, about a young girl wreaking, with the help of gnarled bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (here played by ye olde The Dude with a whisky-breath hangover), vengeful havoc upon her father’s murderer (Josh Brolin’s grizzly village idiot). The difficulty in commenting is that it’s precisely what you might imagine, if you’re familiar with the Coen oeuvre, only slightly better and slightly less memorable.

Jeff Bridges (superb) never puts a foot wrong, is likeable even when delivering gruff rebuttals to young heroine Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, shockingly mature and adept) although surely would be even if he were shooting a toddler in the face with a cannon. He becomes yet more likeable when Ross’ persistence wins him over and enlists him in aforementioned quest for revenge, dovetailing paths with Twain-‘tached ranger Matt Damon along the perilous, oddball-strewn way.

The film is ultimately too much of a gloriously tidy homage to a certain kind of cinema to stand out on its own merits. You’re thinking of too many other films when you’re watching it, and it isn’t visually daring enough to shake this or quite stand alongside O Brother or Barton Fink or Raising Arizona, for example. You’re too conscious of the ‘Coen’ factor throughout and you’re anticipating something, at this point, that never really arrives. Barry Pepper turns up, brilliantly, for a cameo that you want them to pad out somehow, but no. True Grit delivers everything you want and ticks all the boxes, almost maddeningly so, and is therefore not quite great.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 30, 2011 at 9:29 am

    My husband is a fan of the original so I’ll be seeing this with him when it comes out in the UK. I dont mind a weston but its not a genre I’m that familiar with. I love Jeff Bridges so should be good

    • February 3, 2011 at 11:07 am

      I’m sure you will enjoy it – Bridges is superb, as ever.

  2. mary gilbert
    January 30, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Are you saying that this film is a kind of brilliant pastiche in your final paragraph? I certainly think this is a very good point to make in relation to the Coen Brothers. There’s something so clever and artful and knowing in all their films. They have revisited a whole slew of genres remaking them in their own peculiar way. I think their films are often enormously entertaining and clever but at their core a bit heartless. However as a longtime fan of `oaters’ I was knocked out by The Assasination of Jesse James etc with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. That was a truly memorable Western which managed to replay the genre for a modern audience without being either too self consciously reverential or parodic. True Grit will be arriving at our local art house next month and I’m already looking forward to seeing it. Otherwise having raced through Mad Men 2 I’m awaiting the
    imminent arrival of MM3 as a cultural food parcel from oldest daughter…

    • January 31, 2011 at 11:19 am

      I suppose I am saying that, yes. It’s kind of too good, too measured a pastiche. You cannot fault it, really, and yet the ‘heartless’ factor you mention is very relevant. I don’t think they are quite that cold but it feels like an exercise, a flexing of referential nous and impeccable plagiaristic taste (in terms of imagery). It’s a glossy brochure of a film that makes you want a bit more scruffy charm.

      I totally agree: The Assassination of Jesse James is a masterpiece for me, far more enjoyable than True Grit, with a totally necessary rough edge missing here. Affleck is absurdly good in it.

      Are you looking forward to Boardwalk Empire?

  3. Mary Gilbert
    March 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    I saw this film eventually last week. There were many things to enjoy not least the performances of Hailie Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon and the wonderful sequence where dissolves led from one superb image of the journey across the wilderness to the next. I also like the fact that in westerns these days, cowboys have the authentic bewhiskered look they almost certainly had in the real wild west ( unlike the Rock Hudson smoothies of the 50’s).
    I think there were two major flaws which undermined the effect of the film as a whole. Firstly the characterisation. The opening half an hour was very `talky’ but amusing as Mattie’s `True Grit’ was effectively established for the audience and was followed by her meeting and inevitable persuasion of the irascible Rooster. Once the quest began though, this characterisation became almost forgotten subsumed to the action sequences. There was no further development of the Mattie-Rooster relationship. No real conflict. Not even any real warmth. This robbed the scene where Rooster carries Mattie across the desert of any convincing emotion.
    If the characterisation was subsumed to the narrative this doesn’t mean that the narrative was taut or compelling.This was the second major flaw. The fact that they tracked down the murderer easily may have beeen in the book ( which I haven’t read) but in filmic terms it meant that there was very little tension in the pursuit. Despite Rooster’s bravura performance with the reins at the end most of the shoot outs were tedious and repetitive. Lots of hairy nobodies shot dead doesn’t make for much tension or interest. Then the coda felt tacked on at the end with an adult Mattie devoid of any sympathy or appeal – or is this the inevitable fate of sparky teenagers?
    The Coen brothers don’t make bad films but there’s a bit of a tick box feel as they march their way through the genres. For me they haven’t got it quite right this time though it’s certainly a very conpetent outing. A recent western which I enjoyed more was Appaloosa directed by Ed Harris – another version of the retired gunslinger bought out of retirement theme. ( I admit though to a fervent passion for Viggo Mortensen which means I can’t judge any film he’s in with complete objectivity….)

  4. March 7, 2011 at 9:20 am

    The more I think of the film, and the two central performances, the more I think of Ryan and Tatum O’Neal….

    I think you nail the problems better than I have: ‘There was no further development of the Mattie-Rooster relationship. No real conflict. Not even any real warmth.’ Precisely.

    And then your mentioning the cavity in the film that needs some kind of pursuit. It all feels too curtailed and blah. The final 30 minutes is a terrible, terse agglomeration. The film slips away. It’s all very strange…

    I haven’t seen Appaloosa, though I know many a lady (and the odd geezer) that share your Viggo ken……

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