Tuesday, 16 April 2013
I grew up on a diet of Westerns as America tried to both absolve and anaesthetise itself from effects of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. It was in 1969 that my father took me to the cinema to see John Wayne's latest movie True Grit. From it, Wayne created one of Hollywood's most iconic and referenced screen characters Rooster Cogburn. I didn't manage to catch the Coen brothers remake when it hit the silver screen but I knew that no matter how good the rest of the cast were, the film would rise or fall on the performance of Jeff Bridges in the lead role. I needn't have worried - it went through the roof!
I will come clean and admit I am fan of the Coen brothers (except Burn Before Reading) so I was hopeful when I finally had the chance to watch this. To see 'the Dude' (The Big Lebowski) reunited with the directorial siblings promised to deliver something good. Instead it delivered something extra-ordinary. This film carries all the subtleties of the Coen brothers' considerable talent and for me evoked a feeling that it was paying homage to No Country for Old Men on more than one occasion - or perhaps that's just how they approach Westerns. The lighting, camera angles and locations all combined to produce a feast for the eyes which is reinforced by Carter Burwell's score. As with all Coen brothers films, the use of language plays an important part as the story is enhanced by different character's accents, linguistic style and vocabularies. This all combines to deliver a cinematic tour-de-force. When last was a film nominated for 10 Oscars and ended up without one?
Alongside Bridges we have Matt Damon playing a very un-Matt Damon like role and doing so very well as Texas Ranger Labeouf. Josh Brolin plays the baddie but has relatively little time on screen. Apart from Bridges' barnstorming performance, the film is noteworthy for the breakout performance from Hailee Steinfeld playing the 14 year-old Mattie Ross. At the time of writing this, according to iMDb she has eight films in post or pre production and I'm sure she will have a very full acting career ahead of her.
The film itself explores themes of justice, revenge, honour, trust and coming-of-age. Mattie Ross experiences more than a 14 year-old girl should: the murder of her father and theft of the family's livelihood, hangings, people being shot and mutilated, physical and emotional abuse, and even a snake bite! Throughout it all she remains resolute and I would suggest that it is her who displays 'True Grit' far more demonstrably than Rooster Cogburn whom she hires to track down her father's killer. The brutality of frontier USA in 1880 is graphically portrayed. Lawlessness is a huge problem but towns are becoming organised and social structures are beginning to appear. The way these things are presented in the film offer insightful social commentary.
It would be wrong to say that you must choose between the two films. They were made 40 years apart and the world has moved on a lot in the intervening decades - as has how we tell stories and how America presents it's pioneering past. Trying to set this offering against the backdrop of Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't work. Both The Duke and The Dude turn in stunning performances of their time and both are worthy of their place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame! If you've not seen this yet - do. I'm giving it 8/10.