True Grit (2010)
Directed by the Coen Brothers
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Jeff and other
The appeal of the Western shares much in common with the appeal of Fantasy. Both often have a simplistic morality: the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there is a specific thing that needs to be done to punish the bad. Both utilise landscape as part of their vast visual pallet, whether that be the forbidding peaks of Mordor or the startling natural stone sculptures of the Utah desert. And both genres often featured violent action as their central device for moving the plot along. There's something childishly simplistic in these genres at times, and the simplistic world-view of a child is what drives the plot of the Coen brother's remake of True Grit.
Mattie Ross's (Hailee Steinfeld) father has been killed by a common hoodlum called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Tom has fled town and Mattie is determined that he does not escape unpunished. She therefore employs Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father's killer and bring him to justice. Along the way Rooster teams up with LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), though the two bounty hunters have something of a love/hate relationship. Rooster is clearly a man used to the harsh realities of life, though Mattie's determination eventually wins him over and he agreed to dish out whatever justice he can.
Bridges is terrific as Cogburn, a grizzled veteran of the West, his accent so thick it's near incomprehensible at times, and indeed is incomprehensible whenever he has a cigarette in his mouth. Matt Damon (and yes, like you, every time I see that name come up I get that voice in my head from Team America "Maaaat Daaaamon") in contrast is much more the ideal of the cowboy. Dressed in a tasseled doe-skin jacket and and wide-brimmed hat, he does look like a refugee from a Bon Jovi gig. His simplistic world-view reflects Mattie's but, importantly, he stands by her when things get unpleasant. Hailee Steinfield gives an astonishingly assured debut performance, delivering sharp dialogue with confidence and showing a child both hardened by her environment and broken by events.
There are some terrific pure Western moments here too. The image of Mattie struggling across a river in full spate on her horse is very powerful; this child battling against the elements on her borrowed steed. Likewise, there are some thrilling gun fights. And also one of the best lines in a Western as Cogburn charges towards the bad guys: "Fill your hands you son of a bitch!"
When Mattie finally catches up with Chaney, she finds him to be just as much a child, if not more, than herself. Brolin plays Chaney as a petulant child; a wounded beast who doesn't quite understand why he must be punished. It's only a brief cameo but Brolin pitches it brilliantly.
While True Grit deals with the simplistic theme of good versus bad, it's clear that this sort of morality is a difficult one to live by. It's clear that the lessons Mattie has learned on her quest will damage her, make her into an adult who perhaps will struggle with what life throws at her. The end of the movie is poignant and moving: a portrayal of a dying Western ideal and a harsh future that is just around the corner for this New World. True Grit is a superb Western and a demonstration of why a remake is not always a bad thing.
(9 out of 10)
Neither Jon or I have seen the original film with John Wayne. In fact, it was on TV two days after we rented True Grit and we forgot to tape it, so we cannot comment on how the two compare. I put this on my Lovefilm list as I am a big fan of Jeff Bridges (yes, I've been lovestruck since Starman) and the Coen Brothers, as is Jon. In fact, I remember before we started dating, I leant him my Big Lebowski soundtrack which provided an afternoon's email conversation at work before the big date.
Hollywood does tend to suffer from remakeitis but True Grit is one of those rare exceptions when it works. I felt that Jeff Bridges probably deserved the Best Actor Oscar more for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in this than in Crazy Heart. Indeed, I could hardly understand him at times, especially in the opening scenes in a courtroom. Cogburn is a grizzled bear of a man, tough with a heart of gold and throughout the film, he gradually becomes a father figure to Mattie.
I never could stand Damon before the Bourne films. I love the first shot we see of him, his face lit up by his pipe, reminiscent of the first time we see Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring. His character comes across as a vain idiot and we are not meant to sympathise with him through Rooster and Mattie's distrust of him but he develops a loyalty to Mattie, and like Rooster, it's through this loyalty that his character improves and we trust him to be a reliable 'sidekick' to Rooster.
Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie. She is one to watch for the future. She beat 15,000 hopefuls to the role and is utterly mesmerising and brilliant. Brolin judges his performance well as a portrayal of a whining child-man who is unpredictable and terrifyingly dangerous in his bouts of temper. I have to give a special mention to Barry Pepper (we thought it was Emilio Estevez to start with!), gaunt and haggard as Ned, the man whom Cogburn is really after.
I couldn't recommend this film more highly, it keeps you gripped right through to the startling and then immediately poignant ending, and another gem in the Coen Brothers catalogue.
10 out of 10