Craft and language

Coen Brothers genre pieces are rarely without an ironic twist or two, a knowing nod to the implausibilities of the conventions, or some acknowledgement of the shortcomings of of the genre’s paradigmatic works. True Grit is still recognisably a Coen Brothers movie, but it’s a much more straightforward homage to the Western than, say, Miller’s Crossing was to Golden Age noir. As you might expect of any contemporary film, it paints a harsher, more brutal picture of Western life than traditional Westerns conveyed, its violence more consequential, and its dialogue more lived in, but in terms of its narrative structure and its thematic content it’s pretty much on the nose.

What True Grit is not, is a remake. It’s a fresh adaptation, and is reputed to be much more faithful to Charles Portis’s novel than Henry Hathaways’ legendary 1969 film (for which John Wayne won his only Oscar). It’s a long time since I saw that movie, but as I recall it was definitely a bit of a departure from Wayne’s typically straightforward heroic roles, and was probably pretty much a ‘revisionist Western’ by the standards of the time—the genre was very much in its last hurrah by the late 60s in any case. The Coens’ True Grit would usually be classed as revisionist, but the fact that it portrays the Old West as an unheroic place full of unheroic violence inflicted by men of dubious morals is something it has in common with pretty much any Western made from the 1970s onwards, and I’d be disinclined to bother with that label. It’s a Western, made with evident love for a genre that hadn’t been a major commercial concern for forty years by the time it was released.

Westerns’ aesthetic vocabulary is usually conceived in terms of landscape, costume, and a certain kind of stylish machismo which drives its narratives in place of characterisation. This last is not a criticism but an observation: the foibles and vanities of human character seem irrelevant and insignificant in the context both of the Western’s overbearing wilderness settings, and of the mythic dramas which they enact. However, in common with many latter-day Westerns, True Grit does try to depict its characters with something of the specificity that is required of a plausible fiction. There is an archetypal resonance to them as well, particularly to Jeff Bridges’ unethical though ultimately moral lawman, but they all give the impression that they have some life beyond the surface they present to the screen.

This film plays on the established vocabularies of the Western with great pleasure. Roger Deakins’ cinematography animates the landscape with the same vivid expressionism pioneered in the movies of John Ford, while the sets and costumes are exquisite. But what the Coens really love about Westerns, it turns out, is language. Or they just love language, because the nineteenth century formalities of much of the language here is absent from the majority of traditional Westerns. It’s in the speech and dialogue that a real sense of aesthetic relish develops, along with a lot of the movie’s epic power.

Much of the best language is placed in the mouth of Mattie Ross, the film’s vengeful fourteen-year-old protagonist, portrayed brilliantly by Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen when it was shot), who deserved top billing and an Oscar (she got nominated for one, and a bunch of other awards, to be fair). The determined, formal oratory with which she negotiates prices with tradesmen is positively Shakespearean, and the total conviction with which she inhabits her character is extraordinary. Jeff Bridges also puts in a sterling performance, his cantankerous, curmudgeonly killer still somehow cut from similar cloth to the Dude—I think it’s the way that he plays every role as though they ultimately don’t think anything is worth getting too upset about. I could go on—the Coens know how to elicit good performances from good actors, and every part here is played excellently.

These are the cornerstone of its success. I’ve just read back what I’ve written above, and noted that it doesn’t really convey how good I thought this film was, or why I thought that—and on reflection I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s not formally audacious, as the Coens often are, and although its story is a moving and involving one, it’s not one of extraordinary, unusual tragedy or anything—in fact it’s told in such a way as to suggest that Mattie’s loss and the circumstances surrounding it are pretty much commonplace. It’s just beautifully made.

As noted, every performance is strong, every actor delivering their lines as though they had just thought of them, their speech patinated with the grit and grime of habituation. The cinematography I have already mentioned (Deakins won a BAFTA for it), and the sets and costumes. The editing is as on point as ever. I guess the bottom line is that this film is just such a fully achieved example of the film-maker’s collaborative craft, such a clearly and colourfully told story. The source novel gives it something other than a ‘happy’ ending, which was clearly a little too bleak for the producers of its first adaptation, and here we have that same satisfying lack of total closure for which the Coens are known. Hard lives are lived by people who, through the lens of the American consumerist dream, don’t look that happy. But they look real, and the world of the film is so carefully realised as to immerse any sympathetic viewer completely.

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