True Grit (2010)

12 February 2011

MP here

True Grit, the Coen Brothers' latest film, is an unremarkable effort. An adaptation of Charles Portis's 1968 novel - which was made into a film by Henry Hawathaway the following year - it is in many respects their most straightforward film, a 'genre homage' without the self-conscious stamp that marked films like The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) or Miller's Crossing (1990); but if the usual technicalities are well polished and the film is typically no less than solid, it also happens to be their least distinctive work to date.

In 1880s Arksansas, headstrong 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires the tough, eye-patched deputy U.S. marshal 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the hired hand who murdered her father. Mattie insists on accompanying the marshal through the Choctaw terrain in search of Chaney, and the pair are soon joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is chasing the outlaw for his own reasons. Along the way, LaBoeuf and Cogburn squabble; the former objects to the latter's drinking habits, while his own self-regard and mythologising are the constant target of derision. Anyone who saw the trailer for the film - itself an overlong linear progression through most of the plot - will not be surprised when Mattie herself happens across Chaney on an otherwise typical morning. The film's final act follows.

Bridges's Cogburn, following John Wayne's Oscar-winning turn in 1969, is a growling, mumbling drunkard introduced to us during a court case scene in which he reckons, matter-of-factly, to have killed 23 men. At one point in the film, LaBoeuf notes to Mattie that the marshal didn't sleep all night - the clear implication is he spent all of it drinking: in the immediately subsequent scenes, Bridges more and more resembles Jeff Lebowski. (Ironic side note: if as the plot itself develops his dialogue is less and less vital to the action, earlier in the film, Bridges's articulacy is elusive when it is most needed; optional subtitling on the DVD release will be most welcome.)

Ben Walters describes Cogburn as "agreeably pitiless", but that's a rather confused assessment, failing as it does to acknowledge the convenient traits of his character that allows the Coens to make us root for such a ruthless lawman. Indeed, the film's fundamental appeal lies in Cogburn as the toughened but "essentially good father figure"; if the Coens' verbal wit is consistently present, any initial suggestion of the same unsentimentality that drove No Country for Old Men (2007) is undermined by the final simplicity of Cogburn's moral intervention as father figure to Mattie.

The Coens seem to make two kinds of films: broadly speaking, there are those that draw critical attention to themselves as serious works, such as Fargo (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001); and there are those that are less serious, such as The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Burn After Reading (2008).

These latter kinds - which we'll also claim includes 2009's A Serious Man - are the sort of films the Coens churn out with ease, in that their casual approach to reality and the world in general does not demand a particularly thorough attention to emotional or moral plausibility; they'll be "fun" and expertly told, but their point - in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man in particular - is that the world centres around idiocy and there's no point in examining it further.

Here, then, we have an odd mix. A stylistic veneer that fits alongside the brothers' more serious works: a period piece with impeccable production; Roger Deakins' naturalistic (and Oscar-nominated) photography; the slow dissolves that mark time in Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf's plodding, horseback journey. And yet, for all of these things, True Grit remains a quiet film with little to say on its chosen themes of justice and retribution as sought and carried out by a 14-year-old girl.

Without a serious commitment to any of these issues, the film becomes a problematic endorsement of revenge - even when the outlaw Chaney turns out to be more pitiably slow-witted than the villainous mastermind he's been built up to be, the leader of his gang, Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, far more vicious than he was in Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), is snarling enough to make us root for Cogburn, the murderous alcoholic lawman, once more.