True Grit, then. Another stone-cold masterpiece delivered by the greatest film-making force currently operating in the US and perhaps the world, as many would have you believe?
Frankly, not quite. This adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel (as opposed to a remake of the 1969 film version with John Wayne) is certainly enjoyable, imbued with a streak of the Coens’ typically discursive humour and possessed of a steady narrative momentum, yet falls short of their highest standards thanks to an ultimate reliance on deus-ex-machina plot developments and character intervention (blame the source material, perhaps?) and a distinct lack of real emotional clout.
The joint directing team certainly show their pedigree in the expert handling of a couple of tense action scenes. As with similar moments in earlier films Miller’s Crossing and Fargo, they demonstrate a thrilling capacity to build tension through silence and sidelong glances, before delivering explosions of genuinely shocking violence. In terms of the look of the film, Roger Deakins’ beguiling, often stunning cinematography contributes hugely to the evocation of a totally convincing sense of time and place.
Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon both turn in laconically amusing performances as gone-to-seed lawman Rooster Cogburn and windy Texas ranger LeBeouf respectively. However, they generate less kinetic energy between them than Elliot Gould’s Marlowe on his own in Robert Altman’s similarly dyspeptic reimagining of orginal material, The Long Goodbye. Less impressive is Josh Brolin (an actor I normally hugely enjoy) as the pathetically villainous Chaney. The tension mounts in anticipation of his arrival, yet his thunder is immediately stolen by Barry Pepper’s portrayal of the more complex ‘baddie’ Ned. It could be argued that Brolin is deliberately wet, however more menace would have been welcomed.
Furthermore, as a friend brilliantly pointed out, one awkwardly mystical sequence involving a horse, blue lighting and a sound stage, is more than reminiscent of one of The Dude’s sojourns into fantasy in The Big Lebowski, which somewhat breaks the spell of the whole thing. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to not picture Bridges as the Dude.
Luckily, the male performance hole (there was simply no other way to put it) is filled by an astonishing central performance from newcomer, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, the spirited, earnest moral centre of the film (as long as your moral compass isn’t too far from Charles Bronson’s in Death Wish) who will not quit until her father’s murder is avenged.
True Grit has other faults. The Coens stray into queasy territory in the scene when Cogburn repeatedly assaults a young Indian brother and sister by kicking them to the ground from their elevated porch. Despite drawing laughs from a healthy percentage of the crowd it certainly wasn’t funny to me, and made me feel uncomfortable. It is one thing to portray an unpleasant period in history from a morally neutral perspective, but another thing entirely to mine cheap laughs from nasty racism.
Ultimately this is Steinfeld’s film; the young actress totally owns True Grit. It is refreshing to have a film told from such a different perspective and her performance energizes proceedings. Ironically, with all the Battle of the Sexes hoo-ha last year around the Oscar showdown between Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and James Cameron (
Ferngully 3D Avatar), if Steinfeld were to pick up an award this year it would strike a much more telling blow for equality. Her dominance of the film (not to mention her screen time) makes a mockery of the Oscar panel’s decision to shortlist her for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, as opposed to lead.
True Grit is beautifully shot, well-mounted, yet fundamentally unmoving fare, enlivened by some superb action sequences and blessed with one of the all-time great performances from a child actor. However, it comes as a disappointment after the intensely personal and dazzlingly disturbing territory that the Coen Brothers mined in their last film, A Serious Man.