Monday 7 February 2011

Gravelly: "True Grit"

If the Coens' shaky reputation for remakes rests solely on a single film - 2004's middling The Ladykillers - it should also be pointed out their heightened reputation for adaptation (within a recognisably Western idiom) stems chiefly from a single work, too: 2007's all-conquering No Country for Old Men, from Cormac McCarthy. In the meantime, the brothers keep working, never threatening to develop any degree of consistency (or, as their champions would doubtless say, eschewing predictability): who else would think to follow their existential Oscar success with an all-star screwball farce (2008's Burn After Reading) and a vast question mark of a movie (2009's A Serious Man), generally unintelligible to anyone who hadn't spent any time at Torah school?

True Grit, to its advantage, is in fact less a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 film - famous for giving John Wayne one of his signature roles as the ornery, one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn - than a scholarly return to Charles Portis's source novel: it finds the filmmakers exercising their literary rather than larky, post-modern side, and it's all the more satisfying and characterful for that. Its notional centre is plaintalking 14-year-old Matty Ross (Hallie Steinfeld), who's arrived in town to seek out justice for the man responsible for killing her father: Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who's since gone on the run in the surrounding territories. The opening half-hour tracks her negotiations with the various men she hopes will aid her cause, chief among them Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), generally fearsome but prone to spending his days in a stupor or grump that renders four out of his every five words incomprehensible, and LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a cocky Texas Ranger drawn by the prestige that comes with taking down a man such as Chaney.

In its gestures towards symmetricality - signalled first by the recreation of an old-time Western town that stretches into the distance, and later by the restoration of a coda (omitted by Hathaway's film) that mirrors the opening in its mourning of a father figure - True Grit 2011 is as classical an item of filmmaking as there's perhaps been since Costner's Open Range; there's evidently something in the Western as a genre that encourages filmmakers to leave their boxes of tricks back at the ranch. Yes, there are idiosyncrasies: the deployment of grizzled or otherwise interesting-looking supporting players (who remind you the Coens were once considered rightful heirs to Preston Sturges in their love of eccentric repertory), some bureaucratic-jurisdictional horsetrading comedy not a million miles removed from Burn After Reading.

Much of the film, however, unfolds in lengthy, unhurried takes showcasing Portis's original dialogue. "There ain't much sugar in your pronouncements," says LaBeouf to Matty at one point, but there surely is in the Coens' script - which is why it's both amusingly (and somewhat exasperatingly) perverse that the directors keep finding ways to obscure their zinger lines. Bridges is handed a beard and wads of tobacco to chew through; Damon bites through his tongue in the course of one shootout, obliging him to lisp thereafter; by the time Brolin turns up, giving his impression of someone who suffers from severe learning difficulties (the wanted bills describe Chaney as "a slowtalker"), you're all set to pronounce 2011 the Year of the Speech Impediment, and send out for Lionel Logue.

That's a tic, and your enjoyment of the film may suffer for it; yet if there's one major deviation from the classical norm, it lies in how decentred this version is. The 1969 film was conceived as a star vehicle, and everything in it revolved around Wayne's Cogburn. Operating within the post-star system world of 2011, the Coens - as they did in No Country for Old Men - employ a rotation system that makes their take on the material less predictable, but also renders it slightly hard to read in the manner of so many of the directors' films before it. Anyone looking for the sincere, straight-ahead, conventional heroics of James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake should move on; Joel and Ethan don't appear to have much time for that.

You could, at a pinch, read True Grit as the Coens' parable of fatherhood - a darker spin on Ford's Three Godfathers, perhaps. Bridges' Cogburn is bluffly effusive around the campfire - Matty's best hope, for both vengeance and nurturing - yet unreliable: the distance he travels in pursuit of Chaney comes to be measured out in the empty bottles of grog he discards. LaBeouf is upstanding and do-right, but finally too much his own man - he keeps wandering off under his own steam, before disappearing from the plot altogether, as though Damon had been called away to film elsewhere. It's Cogburn who eventually wins the girl's affection, not by anything so sappy as kissing her, but alternatively by cutting a small "x" into the back of her hand in order out to suck out rattlesnake venom.

In a way, Damon, Brolin, even the newly Oscar-minted Bridges are themselves supporting players, and it may be the Coens' slyest, most subversive joke that the real star of the film in this version doesn't even make it onto the poster, or before the title come the end credits. Steinfeld is exactly the kind of straight-talking, unaffected youngster who might have auditioned for Kim Darby's role in the earlier movie: a girl who would indeed seem more at home chopping wood than, say, cruising Facebook, and who lends real, rosy-cheeked heart to what otherwise might have appeared just another of its makers' hyper-conceptualised exercises. If there's a degree of repetition in the Coens' return to a land that is still, as it ever was, no place for old men, it's encouraging to find them making room in their round-up for the hopes and methods of a bold young woman.

True Grit opens nationwide on Friday.

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