The film opens with a blur. Is it falling ash or snow? Through the haze, an angel-shaped glow of light appears. It crystallises. A crumpled body lies in the porch light of a boarding house. So begins True Grit, the fifteenth film from Joel and Ethan Coen. Stylish and warm, this is a beautifully composed film with depth to both narrative and visualisation, each complementing the other. While much care and thought has gone into the cinematography, from sunlit prairies to snow falling on birch trees, and some masterfully shot scenes around campfires at night, the film seems a little bleached at times. It doesn’t diminish the narrative, but rather strengthens the realism of the American West, post-Civil War. The lack of handheld camerawork is a welcome relief, especially after the epileptic spasm that was Black Swan. While film narratives have become increasingly complex, it seems that the focus often slips from cinematography. Yeah, I know that people will say ‘Oh, the camerawork suited the plot!’ Sure, for something like Cloverfield. But sheesh, a lot of the time it just comes across as pure laziness. You know that proverb, ‘It’s not what you say but how you say it’? I think some of our Best Picture noms could use a reminder, though the Best Director noms are all well-deserved.
The actors The Coen brothers choose to work with (and vice versa) surely know what they’re signing up for. Lots of dialogue, delivered like bullets from a machine gun, fast and sharp. Characters so quirked they can’t walk straight. I seriously doubt that anyone who works on a Coen film is less than very intelligent. Just look at the brothers’ track record of lead actors and the accolades they’ve acquired – Frances McDormand, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis. True Grit sees them team up once again with Jeff Bridges, and man, does he ever knock it out of the park. His US Marshall Ruben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn mumbles every word through a faceful of decrepit hair and not only do we understand, but we love him for it. He is a character in the old school definition of the word. But he is well met by fourteen year old renegade Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld. She chews her way through pages of dialogue with aplomb, not to mention getting a boot in the face and a hard spanking, and earned a Best Supporting Actress nom for her trouble. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin round out the cast with solid roles, especially Damon as the Texas Ranger with a stick up his ass. Typical of the Coens, even supporting characters deserve some recognition; the noble villainy of outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper managed to win me over in a few short lines.
There isn’t much to be said about the writing in True Grit that isn’t praise. It’s a wordy film but the dialogue is so colourful that every line is a treat. Cogburn has the lion’s share of zingers and is wonderfully foiled by the dour morality of the Texas Ranger and the fierce Protestant determination of young Mattie Ross. The writing is steeped in old Western tradition and goes down without any notable anachronisms. I did at first think that the girl’s name was Maddy, but that was simply my inability to correctly interpret a thick Western drawl.
The score was a minor letdown without any truly memorable leitmotifs. No surprise to see Carter Burwell missed out on a Best Original Score nom for True Grit, although interestingly enough he also provided the score for another Best Picture nom, The Kids Are Alright. Burwell has scored all fifteen of the Coen brothers’ films in a longtime creative partnership. The man has a laundry list of music for high-calibre films such as In Bruges, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, and The Blind Side, and even lent his practiced hand to Twilight. Despite his credits, I’d be hard-pressed to hum one of his tunes. He’s no Horner, Zimmer, Shore or Desplat. True Grit loses out on this count.
Just as in No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers have created an insular, self-sustained world to play out their tale, and have pulled it off spectacularly. True Grit deserves all its nominations but I’d say it’s best chances lie in Bridges for Best Actor and the Coens themselves for Best Adapted Screenplay. While it’d be nice to see Hailee Steinfeld recognised for her first ever role, Amy Adams will be hard to beat for The Fighter. And it’s an outside chance at best for Best Picture, given that it’s a historical genre piece, though its painstaking composition and rich narrative should definitely be rewarded.
Some Rather Bleek thoughts:
- Mandy’s got it right, the Coen brothers have made a movie that doesn’t pigeonhole to a specific demographic; try and prove me wrong, but it made back triple its budget, so it’s had a massive pull with audiences. I’m not the biggest fan of Westerns, probably because I usually expect the stereotypes to pop in every 5 seconds, a standoff, some guitar plucking and more importantly, spitting. The Coens, however, have a film that feels far more truthful to the Western experience.
- I do think Damon deserves a little more than a sentence; his performance was right up there with Steinfeld and Bridges who have great chemistry in an environment that needs it; unless you’re looking for the film to spiral into a state of depression. The moustache was a little much, but Damon really does bring a great versatility and humour to the role as the Ranger and whilst his initial appearance is a bit jarring, he settles in very well.
- This is a Western that looks amazing, but why? For me, it’s the Coens capitalisation on the change in environment, there’s snow, there’s lush rivers and forests, but there’s not a lot of supreme heat and desert in the day. It’s a refreshing change.
- Jeff Bridges does reaffirm himself as an insanely badass actor, portraying the intelligence and wisdom, but ultimately still having his own shortcomings; he crafts such an appealing character.
- The ending was rather grim and for me, but it was superbly done and built up to. All in all, probably my favourite Coen brothers film.