Western bound!

James Campion gives us his take on the much-anticipated new film by the Coen brothers, True Grit.

The Coen brothers have staked their claim for 2011 Oscar glory with an ambitious Western remake, True Grit (first adapted in 1969 with the illustrious John Wayne in its lead role). Starring Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross, Jeff Bridges as Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, it tells the story of a young girl determined to exact revenge for the murder of her father.

Together with the drunken but accomplished General Cogburn, she strikes off into lawless Choctaw country, where her father’s murderer is said to have fled to. The Texan LeBoeuf also hunts this outlaw, but on a wholly different pretext. Much hype has surrounded this film ever since its release earlier this year at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.

Once the rather drawn-out exposition passes, three core elements of the film become apparent: the gritty dialogue, the robustly determined acting style and the wonderfully eccentric cinematography. There are many scenes of lengthy duration that consist of two characters discussing, arguing and negotiating various points of view. As can be expected, the Coen’s idiosyncratic dialogue is always on show.

The staccato style dominates, with quick-fire rapid response conversation becoming the order of the day. Jeff Bridges is particularly proficient in this respect. His performance is precise and controlled, while at the same time not failing to elicit comic laughter from the audience. This kind of adept execution is what made Bridges a forerunner in the Best Actor category at the Oscars.

Applause has to go to Hailee Steinfield for her courageous depiction of protagonist Mattie Ross. Barely 14 years of age, she was picked from a list of 15,000 applicants to play Mattie, and boy is this one inspired lead actress choice by the Coen brothers. She plays a tough frontier girl with carefully braided hair, severe eyebrows, and a firm sense of right and wrong.

We sense her earnestness right from the off. The fact that she somehow manages to command the screen, despite the potentially overwhelming presence of two greats in Bridges and Damon alongside her, is testament to her character and also her promising future as a significant Hollywood actress.

In many ways her character is similar to the headstrong heroine played by Claudia Cardinale in Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon A Time In The West. Weighty comparisons like this are floating around in critic circles, and can only propel her chances of future success. As Yoda might announce: there is much hope for this one!

By now, Roger Deakins has become somewhat of a cinematic legend in his approach to capturing memorable images on film. In True Grit he doesn’t dream of letting up. Throughout the 110 minutes of viewing, a myriad of breathtaking images is brought to our eyes. One such depiction is that of a dead man hanging from an arching tree in the midst of an utterly empty forest.

Deakin’s skilful manipulation of light and the space is on full display here as in other parts of the movie. There is a stunning twilight panorama also (which is nearly worth the admission ticket on its own), where we see the dark silhouette of Cogburn, Mattie and her horse against a perfect velvet-blue sky.

The film is symbolically rich, but only in a directly explicit sense. There is a sense of ‘what you see is what you get’ in True Grit, in contrast to the multi-layered subtleties of flicks such as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It is very much a funny film, yet never inviting the description ‘comic western’. The villains were less colourful than expected. Carter Burwell has given a conservative soundtrack to the film. Dominated by 19th century Church music, piano numbers abound, many being repetitively unimaginative.

Surprisingly, the Coens (hitherto noted for their uniquely satirical approach to film-making) have largely adhered to Western genre convention. Deakins’ cinematography provides for a sombre movie-going experience, giving the film a darker and more modern feel. But somehow I sense that the Coens could have injected this film with much more verve. Their usual film-making panache is lamentably missing, providing for at times quite a bland cinema-going experience.

The Golden Globes snubbed this film, incredibly so. The Oscars didn’t however, awarding True Grit with ten nominations, including Best Motion Picture. In the film, Cogburn proclaims “we have entered a wild place”: but their dangerous journey is never cast in as threatening a light as it should be. Something is being repressed. In the end, what we are left with is an enthralling, albeit lean, spare and unadorned production. That extra verve that lends films the status of ‘classic’ is missing. What we really have here is, essentially, a film made up of grit. True grit.

3.5 / 5

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