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True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen 2010) – Blu-ray review

June 17, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

The Coen Brothers mosey on into the West, with Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon.  Out now on Blu-ray and DVD.

True Grit
(Joel and Ethan Coen, US, 2010)

A classical Western that’s also unmistakably Coenesque. The Brothers have removed the topsoil of irony and burrowed down to the essence of their craft

The complaint often levelled at the Coen Brothers is that their ironic vision – a post-modern swirl of ornate dialogue, OTT characters and genre pastiche – precludes any real emotional involvement in the story. This, despite Miller’s Crossing heartfelt study of brotherhood, Fargo’s sense of banal horror erupting in an everyday community, or The Big Lebowski’s sheer joie de vivre.

But something’s changed since the Coens’ mid-Noughties exile: a soberer perspective, a sense of lives lived and loves lost, maturity. If, in No Country For Old Men, that attitude could be attributed to Cormac McCarthy’s influence, in A Serious Man it was unmistakably the Coens’ own.  The runes were recast, the message clear enough – the Coens were going straight…or as straight as they could. And, in True Grit, they’ve arrived at their destination, via a remake of an old John Wayne movie (albeit The Duke’s most comic outing).

Not long ago, you’d have put money that a Coen Brothers Western would have looked and sounded a lot like their old pal Sam Raimi’s The Quick and The Dead: a loopy, cartoonish Leone riff. And certainly, the evidence of their last remake, The Ladykillers, would suggest that the temptation to go broad would be impossible to ignore.

And yet, this is deeply classical, a film without even the post-modernism of neo-Westerns like McCabe and Mrs Miller. It’s serio-comic, for sure, with salty dialogue (apparently taken from Charles Portis’ original novel) that sounds like the Coens’ own, and a cherishably odd couple pairing between Jeff Bridges’s indolent wastrel and Matt Damon’s priggish nincompoop. But the Coens’ ever-exemplary mimickry of period and place has resulted in a Western that wouldn’t look out of place double-billed with John Ford.

The Coens’ way into this staunch, steadfast world is signalled by the film’s Biblical epigram. After three films revolving around unknowable fate and cruel providence, not to mention the emphasis on the Old Testament in A Serious Man, the Coens have found religion as a fitting subject for their film. Mattie Ross – the 14-year-old avenger who drives the plots – is a heroine backed by nothing more than righteous belief in her Old Testament vengeance… and Hailee Steinfeld plays her as a schoolmarm-in-waiting, a learned scholar who Book-sharpened wits are to be pitted against men whose chiselled, pitiless features are at one with Arkansas’ wintry, wasted landscapes.

“Carter Burwell’s menacing/melancholy score links True Grit directly to the Coen Brothers’ debut, Blood Simple

The film’s metronomic obeyance to the ritual of the chase, and Mattie’s sheer conviction, is a reminder that dark urges have been at the heart of the Coens’ work – no matter how leavened with irony – since day one. True Grit doesn’t so much tap into Western traditions as wholeheartedly throw itself into the sawdust of the saloon…but Carter Burwell’s menacing/melancholy score links it directly to Blood Simple, a film always billed as noir but whose bleached Texan settings are suddenly seen as belonging to a much older movie genre.

By this point, team Coen – led by Burwell and Roger Deakins’ unfussily evocative cinematography – is so sure of itself that the Brothers can drop the facade. No need to hide behind irony when sequences like the discovery of a man hanging from a barren branch, or a cabin interrogation that erupts into shocking violence, are so delicately, deftly forged.

Even the talk, that trademark of Coens past, is revealed here to be something of a sham. Damon’s loquacious Texan Ranger is full of bullshit; conversely, Bridges’ mealy-mouthed Rooster Cogburn treats words the way Jeff Lebowski treated life, as something to stumble upon accidentally.  In the West, the only surefire means of communication is gunfire, and the Coens pounce on a running gag of shots fired not only in anger, but to convey a message or display a courtesy. Nothing has ever been so succinct or direct in a Coen Brothers’ film before as the sound of shots being fired – even if, in the film’s biggest joke, it’s remarkable how infrequently the bullets hit their target.

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