The Coen brothers are really good at making films.
Most of all, they’re really good at making films in a specific period of time or context – the 30s setting of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, for example, or the late-40s mounting of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Or even the 90s embedding of The Big Lebowski, whose central character, The Dude, abided so perfectly in the reign of Bush, Sr.
True Grit, the Coens’ take on Charles Portis’ novel, last brought to the screen in 1969 starring John Wayne, is perhaps the brothers’ best film since No Country For Old Men. It’s a piece of work that adheres to many of the familiar touchstones of the western genre, while remaining unmistakeably Coenesque, with a script that is as slick and evocative as any in recent memory, and a universally stunning performance from all involved.
Hailee Steinfeld is startlingly assured as the eloquent, determined teenage girl out for revenge, and matches the heavyweight presence of Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin blow for blow in every scene in which she appears.
In a Hollywood full of precocious, slick young actors, Steinfeld’s performance is natural and engaging, and she plays an intelligent character without the showy overconfidence of many of tinsel town’s newcomers.
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read Portis’ source novel, but having experienced the brilliantly sour, hard-bitten adaptation the Coen brothers have brought to the screen, I’m now desperate to seek it out.
True Grit‘s plot couldn’t be more simple. Mattie (Steinfeld), intent on avenging her father’s death, cunningly presses both ageing, alcoholic mercenary Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) and strutting Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon) to help her catch felon Chaney (Josh Brolin) and bring him to account.
On this scant, generic framework, the Coen brothers drape all kinds of wonderful exchanges, unforgettable scenes and moments of weirdness that only they could concoct. A sequence where an oddball character emerges from the winter gloom cloaked in a bear suit is unforgettably, arrestingly oblique.
Then there are the occasional, faintly horrifying flashes of violence that, in true Coen style, are rendered all the more striking by the moments that come before and after. Anyone who remembers the jolt of Walter Sobchak’s ear biting in The Big Lebowski, the horrid fate of Steve Buscemi in Fargo, or the brutal slayings of No Country For Old Men‘s monosyllabic assassin will be well aware of the filmmakers’ distinctive ability to juxtapose long periods of quiet with unnerving spikes of cruelty.
There’s a 21st century patina of honesty, too, in True Grit‘s depiction of its 19th century protagonists. Far from the rigidly good and evil distinctions we may have seen some (but by no means all) Westerns of the past, the lines here are constantly blurred, and it’s evident late on that the men Mattie’s hired aren’t much more virtuous than the outlaw she’s hunting.
To cap it all, True Grit is a beautiful film from a visual and aural standpoint, too. Its cinematography, courtesy of Roger Deakins, is economical, yet sometimes stunning in its detail and beauty, from its opening sequence in a flurry of snow to its concluding shot.
True Grit is a Hollywood movie that, for once, doesn’t feel compromised by executives out to entice the broadest demographic they can. Its dialogue, mumbled at breakneck speed in sometimes impenetrable southern accents, is difficult to understand at times, but this adds as much to the film’s authenticity as the moth-eaten clothes and rotten teeth.
This is a triumph for the Coen brothers, then, and its solid box-office takings and numerous award nominations (including ten Oscars and eight BAFTAs) are entirely justified.
True Grit premieres in UK cinemas today, February 11th.
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