'True Grit' (UK Release: 11 Feb '11)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld
I always tell people I like Westerns – though what I really like is horses, stars, cook-pots, saloon towns, vengeance, righteousness, moustaches, shoot-outs, pluck, trains, vigour, grit. What I mean is, I never had the Sunday afternoon Western-a-week diet, cheering the Duke or his surrogates on against the injuns, which I think it takes to be truly grounded in a genre. And because most recent Westerns – while they've often been fictions I've truly adored – have been revisionist, playing off against the established conventions, I often feel I might well be missing something.
With 'True Grit' that sense was amplified by the general delighted mischief of the Coen Brothers, who are on fine manifest-destiny meets shaggy-dog story form here. I take it they're playing off the old John Wayne film and off the novel but I haven't seen or read either and the only horse I ever rode ate thistles and would not go.
Story is this - Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes into town after her father has been shot by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She wants redress, and she has a good lawyer. So she dismisses her African-American servant and sets to bargaining with man from whom Tom Chaney stole her father's horse. Mattie speaks a fluent yet somewhat mannered legalese and runs rings around the man. She then watches a hanging, attends a court session and, after rolling a couple of cigarettes for him, employs Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to hunt Chaney down.
Cogburn is loveable, grumbling and dangerous, Falstaff-meets-Dirty Harry, grown fat and vainglorious but still murdering his enemies. Meantime, she has also met LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who knew Tom Chaney when he was called other things and shot a Senator in Texas. The three of them go out into the territory to find Chaney.
The film is largely held together by Mattie, whose high-faluting insistence on the law bumps up against the primping and self-righteousness of her companions. Hailee Steinfeld is glorious in the role, able to carry off Mattie's high and righteous diction but also to intercut it with moments of spontaneous and breathless excitement. Alongside her, Bridges and Damon get to have a great deal of ramshackle fun - the highpoint of which is a cornbread shooting match. There's a seediness and grandiloquence to both Rooster and Laboeuf. They both seem, whenever they aren't actually shooting or rescuing somebody, on the verge of self-important tears.
Mattie who is innocent and good, but who has nevertheless brought the language of legal retribution to the frontier, is able to whip them into some kind of shape - sometimes by proving her own grit by climbing on trees or roofs, but mostly by giving them a purpose. There's some suggestion that they belong to a world which has had its day; Rooster's rambling monologues when he and Mattie are alone together touch on his ex-wife's suggestion he should learn the law. But it's his own ageing, not the death of the myth of the West which he has to face, and there is plenty of room for gleeful and entirely unironic heroics later on.
Everyone trades in the territory - Gun shots are used for signals as often as for violence. There is a good train. Mattie's pony, Blackie, is not only strong and devoted. In one scene he struggles across a river and Rooster and Laboeuf stand back in admiration of the horse. Blackie has grit, and apples, and alongside Mattie is the one unequivocally heroic character in the film. The landscape is forbidding and lovingly shot; the fades between scenes (often during Jeff Bridges' mumbles) give the feeling one moment and one story melting into another.
So what's not to like? It is perhaps silly to expect a Western to have a good take on race relations but the near-total excision of Indians, and the purely supporting role for African-American characters was still an absence here. Rooster and Laboeuf were both Confederate soldiers, and while they're both wrecks the film also has no compunction about letting them be very cute and approachable all of the time. So we don't hear their views on racial politics, or any of the nastiness which you might expect from characters like this. It would be a different film which did contain those elements, and I'm not sure the Coen Brothers would be the right directors to make it.
Will Self complained in The Observer that the film was really about the way midwestern Jewish kids imbibed the mythology of the Westerns which they used to watch as children. Its cleverness and affection definitely make the trio of Mattie, Rooster and Laboeuf seem like a sitcom family on a camping trip for much of it (which sitcom could be called “My So-Called Confederate Uncles” or “How I Met Your Lawyer”). But what a trip it is.
'True Grit' is showing throughout UK cinemas now.