True Grit, 2010.
Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper and Domhnall Gleeson.
A tough U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger help a stubborn young woman track down her father’s murderer.
If you’re really good at making films, the audience forgets they’re watching them. Reality dissolves into a dream-like state, only with more clarity and a musical score. You come to just as the credits start to roll. “That was pretty good,” slowly dawns on you as you wake.
Afterwards, you start to appreciate those bits that were so finely crafted that they made you forget the film wasn’t real. There are many of these in True Grit, but by far the most impressive, and poetic, is the script. It’s as bold as Hemmingway and flows just as good. The characters speak in some lost American dialect from the turn of the last century. In another’s hands it would come across forced and clunky. The Coens make it effortlessly naturalistic. An example;
LaBoeuf: You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin’ I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss… though you are very young, and sick… and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.
Mattie Ross: One would be just as unpleasant as the other.
It’s as though the script were written out in modern tongue, only for every other word to be replaced by its much grander synonym.
True Grit is about Mattie Ross, a girl no older than fourteen, who seeks revenge on the man who murdered her father. To do so she employs Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), an old, U.S. marshal. They cross paths with a Texas Ranger by the name of LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) who seeks the same man. Cogburn is a drunk and a murderer. LeBoeuf is dull-witted. But in helping Ross they get to show they are both men of ‘true grit’. Not that fake stuff that’s flooded the market.
True Grit is a long way from the black and white morals of most classical Westerns, but it evokes the same misty-eyed steel that they projected – when people were good and decent and weren’t prone to self-indulged soul-searching like the protagonists of the present day. Though it takes the course of the film to show it, all three characters are built upon their principles. Stubbornly so.
It is Ross who eases out Cogburn and LeBoeuf’s true grit. She’s a remarkable gal. Her superego seems too large for her age, separating everything into either ‘good’/‘bad’, ‘lawful’/‘unlawful’ and ‘godly’/‘godless’. She goes about revenge in the language of bureaucracy and supports her sass with knowledge (often to the embarrassment of the adults with whom she talks). It’s what makes her pairing with Cogburn so parental, like she’s some chip off the ol’ block. There’s always the sense that she’s imitating the talk and actions of those much older than her. It’s kinda cute, if a little brash.
The film’s great strength, alongside and because of the script, is this sincerity. The score doesn’t have an ironic note in it. Being post-modern is the easy way out these days. The Coens don’t allow their characters to sit and agonise over personal pain – they internalise it and proceed with the tasks at hand. Psychoanalysis had yet to take off on those shores. Consequently, True Grit conducts itself in heroic charges against terrible odds. It’s easily the film of the year thus far.
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