Tuesday, 22 February 2011
Film #13 True Grit
"I mean to kill you in one minute, or see you hanged at Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience. Which'll it be?"
"I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"
So begins M.D.C.'s classic hardcore track "John Wayne Was a Nazi", a famous dialogue excerpt from the original 1969 True Grit. Back in the late seventies and early eighties Wayne was a great figure of the rightist establishment for young cultural rebels to kick against. But it seems that these days The Duke no longer casts the same shadow over American culture. Maybe it's a tribute to the performance, but Jeff Bridges is utterly baggage free as the grizzled U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in this new adaptation of Charles Portis's novel (note - not a remake of the original film).
The story is simple, as a Hollywood Western should be. Set in late-nineteenth century Oklahoma, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks to avenge the murder of her father by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, wheedling beautifully like a cowboy Ratso Rizzo), a renegade stable hand who has lit out for Choctaw territory with a gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, delicious). She hires Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Bridges), a U.S. Marshal with 'true grit' to do this, though she insists on accompanying him out into injun country. The pair also pick up bounty-hunting Texas Ranger LaBouef (Matt Damon) whose upright priggishness needles both Ross and Cogburn as the three set out in pursuit of Chaney.
Much of the critical reception has focused on Bridges and Steinfeld; Bridges is excellent, as you would expect from an actor of his experience and status. Being a character actor (or as they're called outside of Hollywood, 'an actor') he doesn't bring the same baggage to the screen that John Wayne did, thus he is able to have a great deal of fun as a drunken, cussin' and shootin' diamond-in-the-rough. Steinfeld has received a great deal of praise (and an Oscar nomination) for her schoolmarm-ish performance; for me it wasn't quite the phenomenal tour-de-force that is being touted - really she is rather one-note and occasionally a little forced - but I'm being a bit mean: she really is very good indeed.
However, I would also draw attention to Matt Damon (AKA The Frighteningly Ubiquitous Matt Damon, currently starring in this, Hereafter and The Adjustment Bureau as well as narrating financial armageddon documentary Inside Job) who does a very good job of being unlikable and arrogant as Texas Ranger LaBouef. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper both put in sterling turns, and it's nice to see Leon 'Police Chief of Malibu' Russom pop up in a minor role, though sadly there is no expert tossing of mugs.
An oddity worth noting: Bridges has received the 'Best Actor' nomination, where Steinfeld, perversely, is up for 'Best Supporting Actress', despite being the film's protagonist and narrator (presumably the marketing folks believed she'd have a better shot at winning for support and hope she'll 'do an Anna Paquin')
Now the direction and so on: Jonathan Franzen, writing about professional chefs, noted that members of the culinary professions were the mitochondria of society - in it, but not truly of it. I'd make the same comparison of the Coen brothers regarding Hollywood. I doubt they will ever be truly establishment, despite their proven track record of making money from artistically sound films, and also despite making at least four films that I'd consider truly great (FYI: Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men).
It's interesting that at this point in their career - as close to mainstream acceptance as they ever will be - they have directed a picture in the archetypal genre of establishment Hollywood, albeit forty or fifty years too late. The notion of anachronism as rebellion is an interesting one, as fans of The Chap will agree, and I doubt this will kickstart the genre (indeed entire books could be written on the fate of the Western post-1970, as it was seemingly killed off by the Sergio Leone and Mel Brooks).
So, while this is a thematic departure for the Coens - it really is a straight-up and irony-free - it is still identifiably a Coen creation. The story is typically well-crafted and their love of idiosyncrasy in dialogue and character is plainly visible, as is their penchant for mixing the humorous with the dark. One of the joys of watching a Coen brothers picture (and a trait they share with Milos Forman) is the care and attention given to minor, and even non-speaking, roles. Two long-time Coen collaborators also deserve praise: composer Carter Burwell for probably his best score yet and cinematographer Roger Deakin who will hopefully pick up his first Academy Award (on his fifth nomination) for gorgeous rendering of both landscape and physiognomy.
It's by no means the best that the Coens have done - and I'm not 100% sure it should've received quite as many Oscar nominations as it has - but it's a lovely little stop-gap picture sitting proudly in the second rank of Coen movies, alongside A Serious Man, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink.