Thursday, 17 February 2011

True Grit (Redux)

Initially filmed with John Wayne in the lead role, True Grit has long been considered a Western classic. Rather than remaking that version of the story, Joel and Ethan Cohen have gone back to the source material in their retelling of the tale. Charles Portis’ original novel has been closely replicated with the character of Mattie Rose once again becoming a fourteen year old girl and dialogue reproduced faithfully. After a couple of less well-received films, will a return to the Western genre bring the Cohens similar success to the fantastic O Brother Where Art Thou?

Like many Westerns, True Grit follows a familiar tale of revenge. Only this time there is a strikingly original twist: the vengeful protagonist is a fourteen year old girl. Mattie Rose (Hailee Steinfeld) is absolutely fantastic in her film debut as the upright teenager robbed of her father at the hands of murderous Tom Chainey (Josh Brolin). With Chainey unlikely to be brought to justice she employs one-eyed mercenary Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to apprehend him. Along the way they are joined by Matt Damon’s doughy Texas ranger, Le Boeuf and the chase is on.

It’s an impeccably crafted film. The cinematography is beautiful, the script alternates between being spare and being hilariously funny and the acting performances are uniformly excellent. It’s hard to decide who gives the best performance. Steinfeld had her work cut out acting alongside screen giants like Bridges and Damon and stands up to them admirably. She imbues her character with a strength and clarity of purpose which belies her tender years and is unfortunate that her Oscar nomination is only for ‘supporting’ actress – she could claim with some justification to be the lead role.

Bridges is magnificent as Cogburn. He gives a physically committed performance, bloated and wheezing and having affected an accent so thick as to be almost indecipherable at times. But when he needs to be understood he is – and often with hilarious consequences. It’s the whisky-soaked role of a lifetime and the veteran revels in it. Damon clearly had fun, too. His dandified ranger completes the extremely unlikely trio: a fat one-eyed man, a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop.

As you might expect from a Western there are hangings, shootings and horses galore. But it’s a film which doesn’t need to rely on set pieces. What sets True Grit apart is the characterisation and scripting. There are numerous laugh-out-loud moments (particularly some hard-line haggling from Mattie) and some excellent comic cameos – particularly from members of the medical profession and undertakers. What knits these scenes together is the complexity and development of the characters - and that owes everything to the alchemy of scripting, acting and craftsmanship which the Cohens have presided over. Stunning stuff.

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