By Scott Tre
The Western is considered the most American of film genres. It shamelessly embraced the outlaws of the period as folk heroes, setting a trend that would repeat itself in gangster and crime films. By the end of the 1960’s, the genre fell out of favor with the movie going public. It was replaced in the 1970’s by its natural successor, the action picture. Many notable filmmakers have returned to rich mythology of the American west every so often over the last 40 or so years, having offered revisionist and deconstructionist takes on the genre. Some of these seemed to be made almost in apology for the blatantly romanticism and glorification displayed during the genre's heyday. For a filmmaker in this day and age to offer an unapologetic and unabashedly classic take on the genre would take balls of steel.
True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl on a quest for revenge in the old west. Her father was murdered by the treacherous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who made off with her father’s horses and two of his gold pieces. While taking care of her late father's affairs, she procures the services of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a deputy U.S. marshal who prefers gun play over diplomacy when apprehending criminals. While doing so, she makes the acquaintance of the seemingly ineffectual Texas ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who has been tracking Chaney for quite some time for a murder he committed in Texas. The three set out on an odyssey to track down Chaney and bring him to justice for his crimes.
True Grit is not a remake of the 1969 original, but a supposedly more faithful adaptation of the novel which served as its basis. The film was written and directed by the Coen Brothers, many of whose previous films have exhibited an affinity for the classic western. Instead of retrofitting with material with modern sensibilities, the Coens deliver it in much the same way their forerunners in classic Hollywood might have. True Grit is a traditional western, and wears that badge as proudly as any Texas ranger in the 1800’s might have. Though I have never seen the original (shame on me) my father, an avid fan of old westerns, informed me that this new version is not altogether different.
|Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn|
The best westerns are often small stories written large. The Coens take the same approach, allowing that sensibility to inform the cinematography. The camera drinks in the rugged settings in their entirety, showing the characters to be swallowed whole by barren deserts and wooded areas. The inevitability of mortality pervades the film via the visuals. Snow lightly powders the dead trees that populate densely wooded forests, and nightfall seems to bring the promise of death. The grim, foreboding mood casts an ever present shadow over the film.
Despite the rather drab visual palette, there is much humor in the film. Much of it is derived from the central conceit of a young girl who consistently comes off as the intellectual superior of the adults that surround her. The Coens' penchant for surprisingly articulate lowlifes who often wax philosophical with one another also provides many laughs. The combination of the two creates an old west that is slightly off, so to speak. The characters seem to exhibit a certain measure of self awareness, but not of the irony drenched variety so beloved by modern filmmakers. These characters tend to accept the inherent brutality of the world in which they live and go about there business with nonchalance.
|Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Elizabeth Marvel as Mattie Ross|
There isn’t one bad performance in the cast. Elizabeth Marvel infuses Mattie Ross with a determination that makes an otherwise unlikely scenario seem totally believable. Matt Damon, ever the versatile actor, is able to dial down his usual intensity as Texas Ranger La Boeuf. At times he is nearly unrecognizable, due in no small part to his facial hair. Jeff Bridges is fascinating as the drunken and grizzled Rooster Cogburn. Despite his casual brutality and affinity for alcohol, he is a man of honor. Bridges makes sure that the more colorful traits of his character never obscure his sense of duty or his grudging affection for young Maggie.
True Grit is not a breakthrough for the western genre by any means, but rather a solid example of efficient, straightforward storytelling. Instead of the stripping the machine bare and reconfiguring it into something new, the Coens have cleaned and oiled the parts so they can bring it out for one more spin around the track. Like Cogburn himself, the well weathered genre knows its job well. Instead of always trying to teach it new tricks, it is sometimes wise to get out of its way and let it go about its business.