Sunday 17 December 2017

Movies: True Grit *****


Paul Whitington

In one of the Guardian newspaper's snotty film previews, a writer bemoaned the fact that True Grit was a "straight western" -- as opposed, presumably, to something postmodern, ironic and cunningly deconstructed.

Talk about missing the point. Most of Joel and Ethan Coen's lowest moments as filmmakers have come from excessive cleverness and a weakness for obnoxious inside jokes -- for instance in Intolerable Cruelty, or their pointless remake of The Ladykillers.

True Grit is a 'straight' western, but in the best possible sense: it's a splendidly handsome character-based drama that evokes the glory days of a hugely demanding genre in which most modern filmmakers would not be qualified to operate.

In fact, the film is so good it might have been made 50 or 60 years ago in the western's golden age, apart from one crucial point: unlike even the greatest classic westerns, the Coens' True Grit stays faithful to the rich and surprisingly formal cadences of 19th-century American English. In this sense it is not a remake of the 1969 film of the same name starring John Wayne, but rather a return to the book that inspired it, John Portis's short but powerful 1968 novel.

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross, a remarkably spirited Arkansas 14-year-old who sets out to find the man who murdered her father.

A kindly farmer, her father had hired a ne'er-do-well called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who proceeds to kill him for two horses and a couple of gold coins. But while her mother falls to pieces, Mattie is made of sterner stuff and marches off to the nearest town to find out what she can about Chaney. She quizzes an old sheriff about who might be best equipped to track and catch a dangerous man. The sheriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a veteran US marshal of legendary toughness, but when Mattie meets him she isn't initially all that impressed.

Reuben J 'Rooster' Cogburn is a creature of the old west, a growling, grumbling mountain of a man with a robust approach to justice and a terrible fondness for the hard stuff. While undeniably charismatic and sporting a fine line in bone-dry humour, Rooster only has one working eye and has clearly seen better days. But Mattie becomes convinced he has the "true grit" required for a difficult job. For Chaney has fled to the Indian country and may even be running with 'Lucky' Ned Pepper's outlaw gang.

After Mattie persuades him with brittle charm and a handsome fee to take on the job, he sneaks off into the Indian country the following morning without her. But she's determined to go with him, and fords a river on horseback to catch him. So they proceed together, but there's a complication: a verbose and touchy Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is after Chaney for a separate crime, and when he joins Mattie and Cogburn tempers soon get frayed.

Once it gets going, True Grit is in essence a chase movie, but that description does scant justice to its richness and appeal. Until the film reaches its brief but powerful climax, it's a three-handed character study and all three principals excel in sharply contrasting roles.

The Coens' script is delightfully constructed, and add this to Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography and those fine performances and you have an intelligent, enjoyable and hugely satisfying film. A proper western, in other words, to rank with the very best.

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