Sunday, 13 February 2011

Lots of grit


The western is not the kind of movie genre that I normally find appealing. Two things took me to see True Grit: the persuasiveness of my boyfriend and the fact that it was written and directed by the Coen brothers. I’ve been a huge admirer of their work ever since I saw No Country for Old Men. Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially as it looked to be no more than a rerun of the 1969 movie of the same name, starring John Wayne. Second bites, in my experience, are generally disappointing if not disastrous.

This was no second bite: this was a tour de force, a brilliant movie filled with grit. Based like its predecessor on the novel by Charles Portis, True Grit is a story with strong mythological overtones, a fable where a murder invokes the pursuit of the Furies. In this case, though, there is only one Fury – fourteen year old Mattie Ross, brilliantly played by fourteen year old Hailee Steinfeld, for me the highlight of the whole film. Controlled, full of Presbyterian self-righteousness and Biblical notions of right and wrong, her Mattie is as electric as Electra.

Mattie’s father has been killed far from home by Tom Chaney, a hired hand played by Josh Brolin, who promptly flees into the dangerous Indian territories of Oklahoma, a place where nobody cares enough about the dead man to pursue him, not even the law. Mattie arrives to collect her father’s body, while her less capable mother cares at home for her younger siblings; but she comes with a supplementary motive: she wants to see his killer pursued and hanged.

There was something about Mattie, something about Steinfeld, which reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. Different in so many ways, they both possess the same qualities of determination and self-reliance well beyond their years, a desire above all to do what is right and necessary, no matter the adverse odds. Both are tough in their own ways, though not so tough that a child-like vulnerability occasionally comes to the surface.

My, what self-possession Mattie has, what incredible single-mindedness. The movie has some wonderfully comic moments, none more so than her horse trading with Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) the horse trader. One almost begins to feel sorry for the poor man, crumbling under the girl’s onslaught!

To track down Chaney Mattie finally hires a US Marshal by the name or Rueben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a disreputable, dishevelled and hard-drinking, one-eyed lawman played by Jeff Bridges, who mumbles and grizzles his way through the movie. Don’t misunderstand: he does the part well, though I found his dialogue a little difficult to follow at points. Rooster, despite his faults, has exactly what Mattie wants – he is a man not readily daunted; he is a man with true grit…almost enough to match her own.

In the eventual pursuit (Rooster makes the mistake of trying to give Mattie the slip), they are joined by a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf – invariably pronounced as La Beef - , played by Matt Damon, a pompous and slightly dandyish character who is after Chaney for a separate crime. As they journey together into the territory of the Indian Nations, where Chaney is believed to have joined with the gang of one ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), a highly effective tension builds between them, conflicts of character and conflicts of motive.

There is so much to enjoy in this movie; the script, the acting, the score, the characterisation, the scenery and the slightly-archaic dialogue (At one point La Boeuf says to the straight-talking Mattie “You give very little sugar with your pronouncements.”) The cinematography is truly excellent, with little of the summer-time ‘prettiness’ of more traditional westerns. A winter’s journey, the palette is one of muted tones, of greys, of creams and of browns; muted, yes, but with a simple, stark beauty.

As I have already said, there are some superb comic scenes, including a perfectly surreal moment when what appears to be a bear enters stage right riding a horse. This isn’t Davy Crocket wearing a coon-skin cap, this is a dubious travelling dentist and all round medicine show, who just happens to be wearing the whole hide of his particular animal, the head on top of his head!

In the end Mattie gets her man. In the end Rooster, who has little in the way of finer feeling, develops a father-like solicitude towards his young employer, riding hard with her to a get a doctor after she has been bitten by a rattlesnake. In the end there is a coda with Mattie, now twenty-five years older, missing part of her arm from the snake bite, having taken another body, that of Rooster himself, back for burial in her family plot, there musing how time finally catches up with us all.

24 comments:

  1. Did you see this?

    http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1945368

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  2. Hi, Ana.

    Just passing through. I actually logged in to see what you thought about the 'King's Speech', but I see that you posted on that long ago and that it's far too late to join that thread. Don't disagree with a word you say therein, by the way, and agree with Adam that it is one of your best posts.

    Moving on, I am no great fan of Westerns, but it looks like I may have to go to see this one, given the rave reviews from Kermode and yourself. You were, after all, absolutely right about 'L'Illusionniste'.

    But, and I can't help myself, given my age, Jockish tendency to josh and inborn pedantry, you are, with respect, not very good at spelling 'dishevelled', in my opinion.

    This is, of course,a good thing since my 'Presbyterian self-righteousness' demands that I believe that none of us are perfect or perfectible and that even Homer nods.

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  3. John, you are such a dear man, Presbyterian and self-righteous or not!

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  4. Now that you're in to to the Coen brothers, you have seen Fargo ("the homespun murder story!") right?

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  5. Yes, Jeremy I have seen that, another great movie.

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  6. i watched the movie too and liked it a lot. what took me to movie was the jeff bridges(really like his acting). the 14 year-old girl was brilliant played.
    after watching this movie i found coen brothers' another movie "the man who wasn't there" on internet. very good!
    oh, i too like "no country for the old man".

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  7. I'll see this movie because I'm a big Jeff Bridges fan - I never much liked the original but I'm pretty sure I'll like this version.

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  8. I ain't seen this here movin' pitcher lil' lady but...I did look at calvin's video reference and I noticed that pistol is not the hog-leg type in the original movie. Wayne comments on this: "that'll kill him alright..if y' can find a fence-rail to lean it on while you fire it."

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  9. Yun yi, I'll look for that. Do Google Calvin's link. It's very funny, especially if, like me, you found a lot of Bridge's lines almost impossible to understand. :-)

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  10. Retarius, there is a line to that effect in this movie. Apparently it follows the text of the book closely. Anyway, I thank you sir, and declare this is an entertainment that should not be avoided. :-)

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  11. Blood Simple is still my favourite CB movie.

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  12. I enjoy this movie, Bridges was marvelous, he was complex and different to the idea of the perfect and intimidating cowboy, Steinfeld was great too but was more easy to interpret. I think Coen Brothers did a good job here, the western is alive, it come back strong. A hug. Mario.

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  13. ana, if you had trouble to understand jeff bridges, you could imagine my experience in theater(not only i could not get bridges' lines, but many other lines as well). that's why i don't go to theater watch mystery movies.

    by the way, i just watched "wicker man" from internet (after i saw the thread about horror movies). it is not a horror movie at all! but the movie is certainly one of those the most unforgetable, and profoundly miserable...

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  14. Mario, I have to thank you for your own review here, one other thing that persuaded me that the movie was worth seeing. A hug back on Saint Valentine's Day. :-)

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  15. Yunn yi, was it the original or the remake that you saw? The remake is a horror story alright, but not for the reasons you may suppose. :-))

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  16. Original. I see. I quit watching horror movie so I will have to skip remake. Thanks!

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  17. It was made in 1973, a low-budget British pic with Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward. It's really rather good, with all sorts of pagan references. The remake is a travesty!

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  18. Thank to you for the mention. A little late but happy day of the friendship. A hug.

    Mario.

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