FILM – TRUE GRIT
by Fleur Macdonald
Fleur is the co-editor of the excellent arts review aggregation site The Omnivore (www.theomnivore.co.uk)
True Grit isn’t the first Western from the Coen brothers. A modern day contemplation of American values, No Country For Old Men subverted the genre with its suburban subtext and contemporary cinematic setting that verged on horror. True Grit is a traditional return to the Wild Wild West. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a young girl who’s determined to bring her father’s cold-hearted killer to justice. To carry out her aim, she enlists Rooster Cogburn, a maverick Marshall who exhibits what the locals term as ‘true grit’. Monsieur LaBoeuf, a Texas ranger, joins in on the man hunt as he’s been chasing Tom Chaney for the murder of a senator committed in his jurisdiction. The unlikely trio form an even more unlikely alliance and set off into the Indian frontier to chase down their prey and the outlaws who have taken him under their wing.
The Coen brothers’ latest plays out like an Disney film. It’s closer to Walt’s little known classic Wild Horses Can’t Be Broken – yes, horses can dive from a springboard 60 feet up in the air – than The Searchers. Fierce, independent and mouthy, Mattie is a modern fairytale princess, who will brave anything to overcome the odds in this coming-of-age bildungs-film. The other characters faithfully follow their arc; Rooster finally shows his heart and LaBoeuf his beef.
Like all the best Coens, the lines are on point like a rain of flaming apache arrows and the film is beautifully mounted. Vintage Coen, the dialogue is off-beat and the images off-kilter. Vultures peck at corpses dangling in the sky and bear-clad men on horseback amble through woods. The roster of big names doesn’t overpower the story. The wild scruff and grizzle of the landscape finds itself etched into Bridges’ face. Brolin is nearly unrecognisable as the villain. Matt Damon proves he’s the most versatile actor out there as the good natured numbskull who, along with Mattie, gives the film its heart. But it’s a Western that doesn’t tackle the opposing pull between the call of the wild and the comfort of civilisation. Or the ascendancy of white man over native Indian. Instead it is about the slow creep of litigation and the shaky security it guarantees. Mattie does not represent the hearth but rather the power that the law lends to the weak. She threatens the men not with the attraction of settling down but with the power of her attorney – who in fact provides the voice over. And that’s the joke; this is probably the most contemporary threat to freedom that Americans now face.
The Coens update the fable quality of the Western. The snow gleams out from the frame, the fingers snap off a villain and the stars twinkle in the sky – as close to 3D as a flat screen will get, the latest version of technicolour. The music almost parodies the traditional Western leitmotif to a distracting degree. This air of unreality emphasises the fable-like quality intrinsic to the Western genre but also distances you from the true grit of the proceedings.
It is also a series of anti-climaxes. it deals neither in moral absolutes nor In dangerous equivocation; the baddies are not bad, just mad or – worse – tame. Barry Pepper, despite his best Woody Harrelson impression, shies off being a truly chilling nemesis; it’s mainly his dental hygiene which provides the shudders. The Coens decide to distance us from the climactic moment of the shoot out with an almost comic montage, then filming the final death at a long distance angle. Life may be like that – without those pivotal moments of somber dignity – but it’s no substitute for that gut wrenching moment when a cowboy meets his destiny.
Business concluded, Mattie strides off into the distance, resolved to follow her own path into the unknown. She is the lonesome cowboy; when a woman chooses independence, it often means going it alone.