Sunday, 27 February 2011

True Grit 2010

I want to start by saying that I am not a Coen brothers fan. In fact, I am either ambivalent or have an active dislike for most of their films that I have seen. Out of the 17 titles accredited to their direction on IMDb, I had seen 8 until today. I vaguely recall liking 3 (Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There and Paris Je T'Aime - "Tuileries"), am perplexed by the popularity of  2 (O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country for Old Men) and absolutely can not bear 3 others (The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading). I know it's not a good start for me, if this is being read by any of the millions of people who think the Coen brothers are God's gift to cinema. Unfortunately, I beg to differ.

Today I watched the Oscar-nominated True Grit and, for the first time, I have no problems with an Ethan Coen and Joel Coen film. Based on a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, the film is narrated by Mattie Ross, who we see as a 14-year-old (Hailee Steinfeld), on a quest to avenge her father's murder. She, on her own, manages to acquire money owed to her father and convinces Deputy US Marshall 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to work for her and hunt down the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, in an all too short appearance). Along the way, they are aided by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), despite both Mattie and Rooster's initial disdain for him. The story takes us through their journey together - the melting of their distrust for each other, the birth of their concern and a semi-unity that forms between them, whereby they end up saving each others' lives. The novel was filmed first in 1969, with legendary John Wayne playing Rooster Cogburn. I have not seen that film, but it seems the 2010 version has less to do with the earlier screen adaptation and far more to do with the original source material.

There is no doubt that Jeff Bridges is par excellence. He was always an excellent actor but it is reassuring to see that, after a quiet decade or so, he has been back in demand for the past few years. And it seems he was saving much of his talent for his old age! As Cogburn, he is at once brutal and tender, heartless and compassionate. Even in his most drunken, disorderly state, Cogburn counts amongst the worthiest of men - and Jeff Bridges embodies that. His appearance is pure grit, his voice hard gravel and his performance flawless. Matt Damon is an established, versatile actor and yet, I find myself surprised every time to see his range. He is brilliant as the self-satisfied, slightly obtuse, but very focused LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin is a bit wasted here. Despite the fact that he's the subject of most conversations in the film, he has little screen time and he is not very convincing as the coward he is supposed to be. He just doesn't look the part of the snivelling, whiny crook that he is portrayed as in the scenes when we finally see him.

With all the media attention on Jeff Bridges, the Coens and Matt Damon, not enough has been said about 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (who, it appears, was only 13 throughout the filming). She is absolutely stunning in the film. Precocious, yet charming, her character is of a strong-willed teenager, who has a sense of purpose and a strange unemotional stance towards reaching her goal. Mattie seems oblivious to the fact that a person of her age is a child, especially when she deals with older, hardened men, but she is quick to remind anyone who asks her a seemingly sarcastic question ('You have a lot of experience with bounty hunters, do you?') that 'That is a silly question. I am fourteen'! Steinfeld breathes life into this character and the entire film. She is never once annoying, her acting never looks strained and she never seems to be posing. Her performance is just as matter-of-fact as her character's attitude towards the situation she is in. She is a delight to watch.

So, the Coens have finally made a film that has not only been nominated and awarded with various accolades, but has also managed to win my appreciation.