Ok so I didn’t want to scare of any potential readers by including my review of True Grit onto what already seemed a pretty long post, plus X-Men: First Class deserved its very own post.
Last Friday I went to see True Grit at the cinema after about a year of waiting. On imdb last January I came across the casting call for Mattie Ross and have been intrigued ever since; closely following the cast list as it developed from the new Coen brother’s project to a film with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. Now with the positive critical reception and Oscar buzz it had been gaining my desire to see this film on the big screen only increased.
Here is where it gets a little complicated, on my film list rating system (these last two posts appear to have revealed me the film geek I really am) I gave True Grit 4 stars which according to the key equates to ‘Great’. However upon being asked what I thought of it I would have to reply good because although I have a lot of praise for this film which you will soon discover, I also didn’t feel completely fulfilled by it, for me, there was something missing. Now whether this be down to my own raised expectations I can’t, with absolute certainty say, its still another accomplished film from the Coens and I would still recommend it whole-heartedly.
Let me start then with why I wanted to see this film so much, especially at the cinema. For starters Roger Deakens was the cinematographer, an expert at that Western look, he has worked with the Coens on No Country for Old Men, as well as In the Valley of Elah and The Assassination of Jesse James. Time and time again he captures both the austerity and beauty of the Western landscape; the warm glow of a campfire or a sunset contrasted with the danger posed by night. He completely deserves the Oscar, especially seeing as its his 9th nomination and he has yet to faulter in how expertly he composes each frame and illumates both the setting and the characters.
Listening to a video about True Grit its easy to see how masterfully constructed this film is; for example the first time we see Rooster Cogburn its from Mattie’s point of view in the courthouse and even then he is obscured and is only gradually revealed, the same way we only gradually get to know each of the characters. Furthermore we again see the genius of Deakins in the way he has the shafts of light streaming in from the windows contrasting with the darkness of the actual courthouse and the oil lamps. It’s quite simply beautiful.
Secondly is that from the get-go the Coen’s have ruled their film out as a remake, stating that their intention was to go back to the original in the form of Charles Portis’ novel. The first evidence of this is that the film is told entirely from Mattie’s point of view and she is restored to her young and somewhat innocent form rather than when 21 year old Kim Darby played her. Hailee Steinfield is very very good as Mattie, spouting her feisty comebacks with all the relish and scorn of an indignant teenager, but also depicting her fear and earnestness. For all her talk and bravado she is just a girl. At some points I felt a little like I could tell she was ‘acting’, as opposed to Bridges or Damon who seem to completely manifest their roles, but then they are acting veterans and Steinfield is a newcomer, who does very well to hold her own on the screen. Her finest moment for me was near the end when the horse is worn out and Cogburn has to shoot it; the combination of her exhaustion but utter sadness is incredibly moving and I too had become attached to Little Blackie.
The script is a gem. It retains the dry wit that the Coen’s have consistently displayed as well as plainness and unsentimentality of Portis’ novel. The Coen’s get to the point very quickly with each of their scenes and combined with the Southern drawl delivery what we have here is a both a classic Western with the unmistakeable Coen imprint. However, I felt the trailer was hautingly beautiful, a quality that never really came across in the film. Perhaps it was too dry or brutal, but either way the sadness of the ending left me feeling a little cold and dissatisfied. Characters that we’ve come to know and root for are sort of left dangling; of course this was how it was written in the novel and I never expected saccharine reunion between the three protagonists, but at the same time I wasn’t expecting to feel so short-changed. It is a much harsher and sombre experience than the original.
Of course one of the main draws for me was the chance to see Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, currently two of my favourite actors and both utterly suited to the Western genre. Jeff, I feel I know him well enough to be on first name terms, ups the ante that he so brilliantly displayed in Crazy Heart, building on the gruff, tortured soul and taking him to a completely a new level. He IS Rooster Cogburn, complete with eyepatch, cigarette, Whiskey-drenched and belligerent demeanour. I especially liked his toilet bit and courtroom scene. Matt Damon is also sterling as LaBoeuf, full of vanity and machismo, but sincerity when needed. As with both Jeff and Hailee he delivers his lines pithily, drolly and with heart. The trios chemistry is highly believable and their sparring irresistible.
The supporting cast are also excellent, especially Josh Brolin who is really quite frightening as outlaw Tom Chaney and whilst the film is a true Western, witty, moving, visually ravishing and doused with the sounds of firing guns and trotting hooves I cannot help but feel a little bit crestfallen. The chase and ultimate climax felt over a little too quickly, Mattie’s desire for revenge and how much she wanted Tom Chaney to know and pay for what he’d done didn’t match his end; yes she shot him, but not with the classicism of the ‘final exchange’ that we’ve grown used to. Perhaps the issue is not with the film but with me, after all my expectation and excitement I may have only let myself in for disappointment. Nevertheless, I shall not do what the Coen’s did and leave this post on a melancholic note, but instead reaffirm that this is a good film, in fact its very good. The Coens certainly succeeded in not remaking it, but re-creating it and they have done so masterfully. It is a severe and yet exhilarating viewing experience; several times I clutched the arm of my seat and sat with ridged back. As Empire concluded it is ‘darn close to perfection’, not quite there, but a stirring watch, both in performance and style, nonetheless.