Film review: True Grit

Duncan Wu appreciates the Coens' distinctive take on the traditional pleasures of a classic western

February 10, 2011

Credit: Paramount Pictures

True Grit

Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Starring Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld

Released in the US on 21 December 2010; UK release date 11 February

In the middle of True Grit, out of the haze of snow falling in the wilderness, there appears a grizzly bear, sitting upright on horseback. The image is pure Coen brothers, with no source in Charles Portis' compelling 1968 novel from which the film is adapted. (You can glimpse it in the trailer.) It is part of the answer to anyone who has seen the original 1969 adaptation of the novel starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell and asks: "What's the point?" Because what the Coens bring to this well-known story is their distinctive ability to descry the strange and inexplicable in the everyday. Indeed, it is elemental to their films that what passes across the screen conceals an unknowable hinterland - a world of meaning that is sensed but not understood. Not something seen in the average western.

That's a surprise because there's little of the numinous in Portis' novel. Like most westerns, it's a romance - an old-fashioned quest narrative in which the moral value of the pursuers is tested against the forces that oppose them. Portis' brainwave was to focus on the relationship of a 14-year-old girl with the two worldly men who help her pursue her father's murderer. The characteristic brilliance of the Coens' retelling is everywhere to be seen in this film, not least in the first encounter of young Mattie Ross (superbly played by Hailee Steinfeld) with the alcohol-prone, wayward Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). For this, the Coens invent a scene not found in the novel, in which she tracks him down to a free-standing privy outside a bar.

Much of the narrative is sustained by tensions between the three principals: Cogburn - unschooled, mercurial and intuitive; the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (played by Matt Damon), self-righteous, conceited and puffed-up; and Mattie, who by turns is anxious, fearful, yet also domineering and strong-willed. The genius of Portis' plot is that, while purporting to show two men bullying a young girl, we are really witnessing a love triangle.

True Grit is a gift to film-makers whose stock-in-trade is the grotesque, the bizarre and the downright crazy. It is no surprise, then, that the Coens treat the novel as if it were by Charles Dickens, allowing Portis' characters a free rein with their inbuilt follies and foibles, observing them through the shockable sensibility of the 14-year-old at the centre of the plot. Thus, the cadaverous undertaker responsible for the corpse of Mattie's father allows her to spend the night on his premises with the lugubrious greeting: "If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right." As this suggests, the dialogue is unusually busy for a film of the 21st century - full of argument, discussion and commentary. It is a delight, much of it derived from Portis, with added firepower from the Coens.

As with many westerns, the danger of the novel is sentimentality - one courted in the 1969 film, not least by the casting of Campbell, a weaker actor than Wayne and lacking the toughness required for LaBoeuf. Damon is more comfortable in the part, sporting a bushy moustache and throwing his weight around as if he would be glad to hunt someone down and shoot them in the eye. "I have lapped dirty water from a hoofprint," he proudly declares, "and been glad to have it!"

The Coens have fought their damnedest against cheap emotion. Almost up to the last moment, they have Cogburn condemn himself as a "one-eyed fat man", Mattie as "a harpy in trousers" and LaBoeuf as a "nincompoop". If this strategy works, it is because Cogburn's love for Mattie remains undeclared to the last, evident only in his deeds, which will take him to the brink.

Bridges must have known that by playing Cogburn he would invite comparisons with Wayne, although he is no less persuasive in the role, to which he brings qualities of his own. If his portrayal has a flaw, it is that he sometimes pushes the comic aspects of his character's inebriation a little hard. Yet I can't see how this could be wholly blameworthy: the role of Cogburn hardly rewards restraint, and the more Damon emphasises LaBoeuf's propriety, the more emphatically Bridges is obliged to play Cogburn's excesses. When it comes to Cogburn's love of Mattie, the unspoken heart of the drama, Bridges leaves no doubt as to its self-destructive force - and that should provide the true measure of his performance.

Don't go to this film expecting lots of action, because you'll be mightily disappointed. It isn't that kind of western. As with the Coens' other films, the pleasures of True Grit lie in its eccentricities and distinctive mode of travel - not unlike a bear on horseback.

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