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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Coen Bros' True Grit


My first review for artslink.co.za but my most recent film review to date.


The release of a new Coens brother film is usually something worthy of celebration for most film fans. Well, it certainly is for this film fan at least. For True Grit, however, that excitement couldn't help but be mixed with a certain amount of trepidation. This is the second Coens brothers film to be a remake of sorts of a classic film and while their last attempt, The Ladykillers, was nowhere near as bad as some might suggest, it is – if you pardon the somewhat forced metaphor - the toenail on the Coens' almost peerless body of work.

I'm pleased to report then that you can stow that trepidation away for another day – or for another Woody Allen movie. True Grit is a stone cold Coens classic that ranks right up there with their very best. Regardless of what you might think of the John Wayne original or, indeed, whether or not you've even seen it, this version of True Grit is, from top to bottom, pure Coens.

The plot is as simple and straightforward as they come: a young girl enlists the help of a marshal to track down and bring to justice the man who killed her father. It's a simple story that brings to mind the stark minimalism (and the Western setting) of their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men but the film actually has more in common with the The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo and Miller's Crossing.

Despite its title, True Grit is actually far more interested in pure, beautifully controlled storytelling than it is in dealing with the kind of weighty issues that lay just below the surface of No Country for Old Men. This being the Coens, though, however brilliantly served the basic storytelling mechanics of the story may be, the real charm of the film lies in those little stylistic ticks that are so unmistakably and indelibly the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Every last inch of this film is drenched in the kind of off-kilter, idiosyncratic humour that the Coens have made their name on. The characters are genuinely well drawn and each of the main characters in the film has a distinct personality but they are all moulded with that very strange Coensy quirk. The lead character in the film, Mattie Ross, is an especially brilliant creation, played masterfully by absurdly talented young newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld, who, at the time of filming, was all of 13 years old. Mattie may be a precocious teenage girl and the Coens play that precociousness for all its worth – she constantly and hilariously outwits pretty much every adult in the film - but they also throw in naivety, headstrong stubbornness, vulnerability and real strength to fully round off the character.

The rest of the cast, meanwhile, is rounded off with great character actors playing unforgettable bit characters (look out for the bear-wearing doctor) and three great veteran actors to help/ hinder Mattie on her quest. Jeff Bridges has gotten all the attention as the gruff but somehow loveable ass of a state marshal who is Mattie's main and very reluctant companion. And, even if you do have strain your ears to understand just what the hell he's saying half the time, he certainly deserves all the attention he's gotten. Rooster Cogburn may not be The Dude but he's a pretty awesome character in his own right.

Josh Brolin, meanwhile is as excellent as ever as the film's chief baddie, Tom Chaney, but his role is oddly the smallest of all the main characters. Matt Damon, on the other hand, may have the unenviable task of playing a role that was originally played by Glen Campbell and his LaBoeuf, an arrogant, dandy of a cowboy, is clearly the least likeable of the main characters but he is absolutely fantastic in the role. Over the past couple of years he has truly shown himself to be one hell of an actor and this might just be the performance that solidifies that. Unfortunately it’s a role that seems to have been overlooked by many – most crucially the Academy Awards.

If there is one person involved in the making of this film that truly deserves an Oscar this year, though, it would have to be cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's criminal enough that he hasn't won the award yet, but there is no justice in the world if he doesn't take home the gong for his breath-taking work in True Grit. It's not simply that the film is beautifully shot in terms of capturing great desolate vistas and the star-speckled sight of a truly clear night sky, but it's beautifully shot in the sense that every single moment of the film could not be more perfectly visually portrayed. Every single frame of film is a work of art in its own right – a perfect combination of faultless composition and storytelling savvy.

As for the Coens script and direction, True Grit simply lives up to their usual hefty standards – with one slight caveat. Apparently, the dialogue in the film is overwhelmingly lifted straight from the book, which is pretty damn strange when you consider that every line of the film feels so quintessentially Coens. Adapting someone else's work is one thing but adapting it and genuinely making it your own? Now that takes talent and that takes balls and that is, let’s not kid, the Coens in a nut shell.







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