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True Grit: review from the Berlinale

True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ latest feature, opened the 61st Berlin Film Festival earlier this month. Based on a novel of the same name by Charles Portis, the Coen Brothers’ film is the second film adaptation of this Wild West tale: the first was in 1969 by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne. The Coen Brothers’ adaptation is more true to the original in that it tells the tale from the point of view of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose quest drives the narrative. Her father was murdered by a man named Tom Chaney, and fearing that the law will never track him down, Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn, the meanest mercenary marshal in town. They reluctantly join forces with LaBoeuf, a straight-laced ranger who has been chasing Chaney for some time: Chaney is also wanted for a murder in Texas, and a substantial reward has been offered to bring him in.

There is an entertaining dynamic in this motley posse of three, and the actors keep it alive throughout the film. Mattie is played by Hailee Steinfeld, in her first feature film role: her snub nose, puppydog eyes and long thick braids make her look like a child, while her proud, upright stance and steady gaze give her the maturity and determination of an adult. Jeff Bridges plays the rugged Rooster Cogburn, with his, eyepatch, scruffy beard, and voice husky from age and cigarettes. After the shamefully flat Tron Legacy, it was refreshing to see Bridges in a strong new role that made the most of his acting capabilities, rather than turning him into a diminished Dude. For Matt Damon, the role of LaBoeuf is familiar territory: another of his slightly nerdy, insecure characters who finds confidence by sticking to a set of rules, whether they are the modus operandi of a twisted mind such as Mr. Ripley’s, or here, the sensible protocol of the Texas Rangers.
The Coen Brothers bring these three characters together skilfully, so that the contrast is enjoyable without being caricatured. Invariably, when a young female character attempts to hold her own in a man’s world, there will be a scene where she breaks down and cries in frustration, or reveals supposedly feminine weaknesses. The only time Mattie cries in this film is towards the very end, and there is a sense that she cries because she is a child rather than because she is a girl. In every other scene, she demonstrates determination, calmly commanding respect rather than shrilly begging for it. She remains dignified even when subjected to the humiliation of a spanking from Laboeuf. This relationship between Mattie and Laboeuf has a sexual potential which is intriguing because it is only hinted at in the beginning: when Mattie first sets eyes on him, sitting with his feet up on a guesthouse veranda, his spurs on show, his rugged cowboy masculinity is attractive and threatening at the same time. He treats her like a child, but can see she is a young woman. Mattie, meanwhile, can see right through his macho facade: there was a big laugh from the audience when Laboeuf introduced himself as a Texas Ranger, coyly displaying his badge with evident smugness. All of his attempts to preen or flirt are delightfully deflated by Mattie’s proper quick-wittedness, which admits no cheek. The film’s most humorous moments are at Laboeuf’s expense, with Mattie’s wry humour and Rooster’s merciless teasing. The characterization is so well done that you don’t really mind the fact that the other characters in the film are decidedly one-dimensional by contrast.
Just as the characters are subtly achieved, so is the narrative. Although the action moves along at a decent pace, there are not many twists and turns on the road to find the killer. Near the end of the film, you suddenly realise that there is a possibility that the Coen Brothers have subverted the genre entirely: that there might not be a decisive triumph of good over evil, or the protagonists might not make it out alive. Our last image of Mattie, years later, is not so different from Mattie as a young girl: she is still dignified and determined, and still matter-of-factly melancholy about the difficulties and disappointments life deals out.
As this is a Coen Brothers film, the interest lies not only in the storyline but in the aesthetics. The sound in this film really stands out, beginning with its music. The film opens with a piano rendition of ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, not a particularly well-known hymn, but one film buffs will immediately recognise from the Robert Mitchum classic The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Mitchum plays a preacher with ‘good’ tatooed across the fingers of one hand and ‘evil’ across the other, who goes looking for the children of his late prison mate, believing that they will lead him to a stash of gold. It cannot be a coincidence that the Coen brothers use the same hymn both to open and close their film, and include the words at the end, in case anyone missed the link the first time around. True Grit essentially inverts the plot of The Night of the Hunter: instead of a bad guy chasing after fatherless children, here it is the fatherless girl who hunts the killer. Where the preacher was looking to steal gold that belonged to the children, Mattie intends to get back the two California gold coins that the killer stole from her father.
Sound effects and visuals make for a rich cinematic experience in True Grit. To talk of the chime of spurs and the creak of leather may not mean much, as they are assumed to be part of the cliched sound track of any Western. Yet the variety of timbres and the quality of the sound here creates an aural 3D effect, plunging the audience deliciously into the everyday realities of the Wild West, again without labouring the point: the impression is achieved subtly, modestly, and without taking away from the main concern, the narrative. Effects of image are a little more self-conscious at times: lyrical, even magical use is made of falling snow and the starry night sky. The opening shot is particularly arresting, as any start to a good film should be. The story of Mattie’s father’s murder is told in voiceover, and the Coen Brothers resist the temptation of re-enacting the killing. Instead they track in slowly on the father’s crumpled body at the bottom of the steps leading up to a clapboard ranch house, soft light spilling from the windows and soft snow falling on the ground, all with the evocative piano hymn in the background. The brutality of frontier life is also summarised by early images of the town by day: harsh light, bleached-white stone, dusty streets and a high scaffold where the town’s criminals are hanged, each (except the Native American) allowed to tell his story as a cautionary tale to the assembled crowd.
The film is typical of the Coen brothers in that it won’t disappoint: even if you don’t normally enjoy Westerns, there is something here for you to like, be it the humour, the aesthetics, or just the gorgeous sound. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

This review was originally posted on my blog at The Moving Arts Journal.

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