Monday 7 February 2011

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

Ethan and Joel Coen turn their attention to a classic Western tale of justice served as seen through the doggedly determined eyes of a young woman. In True Grit, the triple Coen signatures of grand cinematography, dangerous humour and bursts of sudden violence flourish with the help of a stellar cast.

Precocious 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in the rough frontier town of Fort Smith. Her father has been killed by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and no one seems to care: Chaney has fled into the wild territories, and the law cannot be bothered to chase after him.

Mattie wants to bring Chaney to justice. Through an effective combination of persistence, badgering, pleading and financial reward, Mattie joins forces with US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger Laboef (Matt Damon) and they set off to find Chaney. Cogburn is an aging, hard-drinking law man known for having true grit and for killing more often than capturing outlaws. Laboef has been on Chaney's trail for a long time: Chaney has apparently also killed a Texas senator.

Cogburn and Laboef do not get along, and soon Mattie is having trouble keeping the group together. Eventually they do catch up with Chaney as he rides with the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper. Cogburn and Laboef are outnumbered, out-gunned, and uncoordinated, but with Mattie's help they need to take the initiative and hand out frontier justice.

The story of True Grit is built on the shoulders of young Mattie Ross, and the film is carried by a remarkable performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. Selected after an open casting call attracted 15,000 applicants, Steinfeld demonstrates the maturity of a veteran as the sharp, unwavering Mattie. She steps into centre stage with a calm confidence that dominates the movie and propels the actions of all the other characters.

Jeff Bridges has a lot of fun mumbling his way through mostly incomprehensible dialogue while consuming enough alcohol to flood the west. His eye-patched Rooster Cogburn is a philosophical storyteller who is violent when he needs to be, which is as often as he can manage to turn every threatening situation into bedlam. Matt Damon is lost beneath the facial hair of a Texas Ranger drowning in long-winded pontifications, and most of what he says gets on the nerves of Cogburn, whose return insults are shorter and sharper. Bridges, Damon and Steinfeld make for an entertainingly strained trio who all need each other more than they care to admit.

The Coens alternate between the characters developing and the violent events unfolding, all filmed with eloquence and a respectful admiration for a western landscape as harsh and honest as the people who inhabit it.

In a genre as enduring as the Western, it's difficult to bring too much originality to a film like True Grit. It may not smell overwhelmingly fresh, but what is more important is the comfortable mix of worn leather, cheap liquor, rolled tobacco and gun powder in just the right quantities.

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