True Grit


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

True Grit
"With its mannered dialogue and heavily abstracted characters, this is a film that courts absurdity only to astonish us with those occasional glimpses of humanity that the Coens do so well."

It might seem incredible, as this film's narrator explains at the outset, that a 14-year-old girl living in the Old West would strike out on her own in pursuit of justice for her murdered father. What is not said, because it doesn't need to be, is that sometimes a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.

Mattie Ross is that girl, perfectly captured by Hailee Steinfeld, unrelentingly bold and formidable, determined to get her way no matter what. In so doing she must face down not only the usual hazards of dealing with outlaws and life on the trail, but also the prejudice and sometimes the overprotectiveness of those around her - though of course her life might still depend on them. First up for the job of hired bounty hunter is whiskey-soaked US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, wearing John Wayne's eyepatch but otherwise making the role very much his own). Things are complicated by the arrival of Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a man with different motives for capturing the killer. Of course, the three don't exactly get along.

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By framing the action from the outset as an incredible tale, the Coens allow it a quality of magical realism that seems entirely in keeping with its heroine's approach to life. Steinfeld's often hilarious deadpan delivery doesn't detract from the sense that, initially at least, things are not quite real to her. Her grief at the loss of her father has been subsumed by her quest, in turn fuelled by the stories he told her, by her memories of their hunting trips, and her childish attachment to her horse reveals the boys' own adventure approach she is taking to a journey that could easily become very nasty indeed. This innocence, in combination with her toughness, both empowers the other characters and challenges their usual approach to life. Rooster only briefly mentions the son he never sees, but it's enough. There is a strong subtext here about fatherhood and the importance of bonds forged between strangers against the backdrop of a remote wilderness that can kill by itself even without human intervention.

With its mannered dialogue and heavily abstracted characters, this is a film that courts absurdity only to astonish us with those occasional glimpses of humanity that the Coens do so well. Danger always seems to be greatest at the most tender moments and we are never allowed to forget that, for all the machismo on display, these are human beings on the line. Bridges is wonderful as always, turning what could easily be a hammy role into something darker and more complex, with tragic undertones. Both he and Damon create characters who can be clownish yet remain sympathetic. They remind us that the best westerns were always about character - big characters in big landscapes, egos expanded as if out of necessity, grasping at a slim chance of staying alive.

That the landscapes themselves are stunning should, given the film's provenance, go without saying. Bleached-out cinematography lends them a still more unforgiving mood, yet they remain beautiful. The sound work is also superb. Little details of costuming and set design reveal a painstaking approach that has really paid off. The final shot which, with its musical accompaniment, may be asking questions of its own about what it means to be a man, is breathtaking - and the way it lingers, revealing the depth of the landscape, should caution any dismissive viewer that there is often more to a work like this than is apparent at first glance.

Though not quite on a par with the Coens' finest work, True Grit will not disappoint. It is, if anything, an improvement on the original, but its character is so distinctive that it stands in its own right as a superior contribution to the genre.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2011
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A young girl seeks out a lawman to hunt down the killer of her father.
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Anton Bitel ****

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Elizabeth Marvel, Roy Lee Jones, Ed Corbin, Leon Russom

Year: 2010

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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