The reputation of the Coen Brothers precedes them. The work of directing duo Joel and Ethan has achieved near-legendary status in the world of film; hailed as geniuses and pioneers alike, the two bring a unique touch to any project they embark upon. Their latest venture, True Grit, a remake of the classic John Wayne western of the same name, follows this mould but also makes new ground, and will surely be hailed as one of their most successful projects to date.
The story focuses around Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered in cold blood by a man named Tom Chaney. She decides to pursue the assailant, who has escaped into Cherokee territory. After hiring Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn the pair set about capturing Chaney, with Texas Ranger LaBouef also in pursuit. True Grit aspires to be a classic western; in this sense it could be considered a re-invigoration rather than a re-working of a genre that has fallen far from its previous lofty peak in Hollywood. The scenery is impressive, the action gritty and realistic and the characters are powerful yet uncomplicated creations. The plot never tries to be too clever, foregoing any twists or unexpected developments (perhaps bar one instance that I will keep schtum about); in many ways it is a blunt object, nevertheless it manages to be effective and relatively exciting.
In terms of adaptation, the film takes much from the original with some scenes being close to identical, especially in terms of dialogue. However, the key difference is the Coen Brother’s injection of humour into their remake, along with more impetuous on style. Last year’s Oscar-winning Best Actor, Jeff Bridges, once again performs superbly as the whiskey-swigging Rooster Cogburn. Stepping into the shoes of Western-icon John Wayne, Bridges makes the role his own, carving out a performance that is both grittier and more humorous; the portrayal is encapsulated by his vocals, which are brilliant despite verging on being inaudible. The headstrong Mattie Ross is played to perfection by young starlet and big-screen debutant Hailee Steinfied, who eclipses the performance of Kim Darby in the original. Matt Damon also brings much to the role of LaBouef, slipping comfortably into the Coen Brother’s light-hearted take on the Texas Ranger.
The cinematography is mind-blowing, comparable with No Country for Old Men for its beautiful depiction of the Deep South. It is no coincidence then, that the same man is responsible for both projects – Roger Deakins. While I have no qualms with the cinematography itself, its usage at times is a little unyielding, verging on strained – a more reserved approach may have made the individual shots more powerful. Incidentally, Deakins picked up his third BAFTA on Sunday, for his work on True Grit, and both of the previous two have also been for Coen Brothers projects. The soundwork is apt, with a good score delivered by Carter Burwell. Where the film really shines in this department is sound effects – the gunfire is explosive and the eclectic mix of spurs, hooves and various lacerations/wounds all add intensity to the experience.
While the film never strays far away from its efforts at simplicity right up until the denouement, the ending is as poetic and poignant as you might expect from the Coen Brothers, reminiscent of the post-climax scenes in No Country for Old Men. What does it all mean? Opinions may differ, but one cannot argue with its sadness and poise. Overall, True Grit is amongst the best work of the Coen Brothers, and is a must-see if it is within your capacity to enjoy a Western.