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Film Review: True Grit (2010)

True Grit (2010: Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Have you any leeches? Her humours are unbalanced.

True Grit may not quite be the Coens’ most entertaining film (though it’s a near shot, without a doubt), but it’s unquestionably their most conventional and classically-Hollywood narrative. Mismatched companions on a quest into the wilderness, crusty, stoic masculine heroism, writing that privileges crowd-pleasing zingers; all those generic elements that they’ve spent much of their career upending and subverting, the Coens embrace in True Grit while simultaneously refusing to let go of their fondness for idiosyncratic dialectical expressiveness or the violence of misunderstandings.

Ostensibly more of a new film adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel than a remake of the classic western of the year after that which won John Wayne his Oscar, the existence of a previously admired film version of the story nonetheless seems to free the Coens to surrender some of their trademarked (and perhaps largely played-out) quirk to the sweeping panoramic gestures of that most American of film genres. Shot by longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, True Grit exists in a drained wintry palette of grays and faded browns while preserving the sweeping vistas so central to the classics of the genre. The script likewise turns to brittle-edged wit and the elaborate linguistic conceits of the 19th-century West (“The jakes is occupied, and will be for some time”). There are plenty of standard-issue Coens characters saying standard-issue Coens things, but it’s all enfolded into the whole and serves the larger goals of the film.

The cast slides into this world with relative ease. Jeff Bridges’ vaunted reunion with the Coens (their previous collaboration, The Big Lebowski, has become Bridges’ signature role) goes smoothly enough, as Bridges layers crusty violence overtop of his usual laid-back charm. His accented line deliveries take some getting used to (I occasionally found his initial appearance, giving testimony in a small-town courtroom, to be slipping in and out intelligibility, although it’s damned funny when you can understand it), but once you catch on to his rhythm, it’s almost more about the sound than the sense of his words, as is the case with much Coens dialogue. Matt Damon is not quite the peacocking Texas Ranger that his companions make him out to be, but he’s hardly out of place. Brief appearances by grimy outlaws Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are perfectly effective, although Pepper makes a more effective antagonist than the mopey nobody that Brolin makes Tom Chaney into.

I do believe I rightly winged that pronghorn! What say you?

But the movie belongs to Hailee Steinfield, whose mix of primness, toughness, and razor wit are startling, if a little without context. One could well put it down to the grim Presbyterian ethic, but there’s little effort made to do more than hint at its sources. We’re meant to enjoy this hard-bitten, determined girl for what she is and not consider how she got that way; the Coens excel at telling us in revealing detail who their characters are without giving us much detail as to who they’ve been.

For all of its commendable points, this is hardly a flawless film on par with the brothers’ best work. The plot is possibly their most predictable, with precious few of the droll quasi-noir convolutions that they excel at penning. The film’s concluding tone is also a mite uncertain and unsatisfying; there is neither triumph nor elegy in the epilogue, nor is there an artistically ambiguous mix of the two, which the Coens deploy so adeptly in their finest films. This closing mood is perhaps reflective of Mattie Ross’ own unsentimental matter-of-factness, but it seems to just sit there, passively expiring. For a film that is so pleasurable in so many other ways, a more definite exit might have been desired, a bit more truth to go with the ample grit.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 22, 2012 at 7:34 pm

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