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True Grit

USA 2011
Directed by
Ethan Coen / Joel Coen
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

True Grit (2011)

Synopsis: A broken down U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) helps a determined girl (Hailee Steinfeld) track down her father's murderer.

I must admit that in anticipation I was sceptical about the Coen’s latest film. There is nothing about Henry Hathaway’s likeable 1969 original that suggests a need for a remake but True Grit 2011 is a thing of beauty. Although a good deal of the original is still visible including the plot, most of the pivotal scenes and some of the dialogue, the Coens have extensively reworked the film, apparently being more faithful to the source material for both versions, a 1969 novel by Charles Portis, and added some scenes, written new dialogue and given the film a different ending.

For a start this is no gimcrack Hollywood Western with cheap sets and stock production values. Rather, particularly in the early part of the film, the settings are superb recreations of the kind of civilized West we are familiar with from late 19th century lithographs. Lensed by the Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, this beautifully sets the scene for the introduction of Rooster Cogburn, a hard livin’ reprobate whose rolling stone life is from a now largely bygone era.

Enter Jeff Bridges in the role which gave John Wayne his golden handshake Oscar. If Wayne made the best of his advancing years to play the old curmudgeon, Bridges, in a performance that far outweighs his vastly over-rated Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart takes the part and makes something marvellous of it. His Cogburn is as rough and tough as an old boot filled with gravel, an ill-kempt, overweight drunk who drawls the Coen’s typically lively dialogue with a rumbling, tobacco-stained twang that seems like it's heading straight for some off-camera spittoon. In another outstanding bit of casting Matt Damon steps into the original Glen Campbell role of a straight-laced Texas Ranger and pulls it off with panache. I was somewhat less taken by Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross, Cogburn’s 14 year-old employer. She didn’t have the tomboyish, wise-beyond-her-years quality that Kim Darby’s original brought off so well but then Darby was 21 at the time whereas Steinfeld really was 14. To carry such a weighty role with such confidence at such a young age is no mean feat.

One of the delights with the Coens’ film is the fun they have with the original and indeed the Western genre whilst in no way belittling it. Extending one of the distinctive features of the original, the characters talk an archaicized semi-formal language that heightens the yesteryear ambience that is the Western’s stock-in-trade. True Grit is yet another example of the Coens’ wit and superior craftsmanship. Whether you have seen the original or this is your first encounter with Mr Rooster Cogburn, you won’t be disappointed.




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