Perfect marriage of Old West and classic Coens
Some thought the western dead when Mel Brooks poked fun at the genre in Blazing Saddles (though in reflection Young Guns was more damaging), and certainly the romantic, wistful grandeur of the old horse operas was dealt a blow by Clint Eastwood’s brutal revisionism in Unforgiven.
Since then, the western hero has been recast as a hallucinating accountant-turned-poet and ‘‘killer of white man’’ ( Dead Man), and flung into present-day Texas, where horses must outrun helicopters ( The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), and honourable quick-draw showdowns in the street have been replaced with Mexican drug deals gone wrong ( No Country For Old Men).
What would John Wayne think of all this? Indeed, what would he think of the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit? Charles Portis’ celebrated novel was first adapted for film in 1969, as a John Wayne vehicle, most notable for netting The Duke his one and only Oscar.
There would likely be some grumbling about his iconic character, Rooster Cogburn, being reduced to second fiddle by a precocious teenage girl, but I think he’d like it. True Grit is surprisingly old-school.
Certainly, much of the humour and the focus on the Mattie Ross character has more to do with the Coens (and Portis’ original story) than the classic western, but there is a freewheeling bravado to the picture’s tone, its gorgeous score and simplistic storytelling, that harks back to a beloved era.
Fourteen-year-old firebrand Ms Ross (a wonderful Hailee Steinfeld), employs US Marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father. Mattie employs Rooster because he is the meanest, most ruthless marshal – because he has ‘ true grit’ – though the title of the picture actually refers to the child herself.
We watch Mattie bed for a night amongst the corpses of a mortuary – preferable to sharing a bed with an old slag at the boarding house; we see her out-barter a cunning trader, and tag along for the manhunt – much to the consternation of Rooster and a fellow bounty hunter, the irrepressible windbag LaBoeuf (Matt Damon).
Though as pragmatic and nononsense as they come around others, when talking to her horse or writing letters home, Mattie is every bit the open range romantic, expecting the kind of adventure the old westerns promised.
Though centuries apart, Mattie’s spirit is as endearing and indelible as 2010’s other embodiment of tweenage pluck, Chloe Moretz’ Hit-Girl ( Kick-Ass)
Bridges and Damon are dependably strong. Much of the film’s humour comes from their
Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges do right by the Old West an adventurous and darkly comic western. badgering of each other, Rooster the indignant drunk, LaBoeuf the cocksure Texan.
The story is surprisingly simple for the Coens, there is no surprise double-cross or convoluted plotting, allowing each of the rich characters to reveal themselves naturally, including Barry Pep- per’s crackpot embodiment of Looney Tunes outlaw Yosemite Sam.
At under two hours, True Grit resists the urge to go epic and leaves you wanting more adventure, more banter and more beans cooking over an open fire. It demands repeated viewing.
The cowboy way: in True Grit,