I was having a brief meeting with my friend from the Arts world. He’d put together a proposal for some funding and he asked me to have a quick look over it, just to see what I thought. I did look over it, and even had a few tiny suggestions, so we met up for a high-level discussion.
Pint? he said.
Certainly, I concurred.
That was when the phone rang. My daughter. Remember we’re going to the pictures tonight?
Ah, right. Yeah. Of course I do.
You forgot, didn’t you?
You, me and Bullet were supposed to see True Grit cos it was the only night we were all free?
Of course, I assured her. In fact, I’m on the way right now.
You’re having a pint, aren’t you?
I’ll be on the way right after this.
And so I was, for who but a man with a heart of stone could fail to attend the cinema with his children? Even if they happen to be grown men and women?
What a picture, my friends. What a picture.
What a script. What direction. What photography.
What a great story, a gripping yarn full of adventure, danger, cliff-hanging, gunfights, horses, prairies, smelly old killers and one or two moments of truly bizarre black humour. I won’t spoil them for you, but watch out for Ed Corbin’s appearance as the Bear Man, and the insane chicken-clucking of Ned Pepper’s idiot sidekick, whose name I do not have.
You know the story. An astonishingly self-possessed fourteen-year-old girl hires an old killer to hunt down the man who murdered her father. They track him into Choctaw territory accompanied by a pompous Texas Ranger, played by Matt Damon, and eventually, after a series of minor climaxes, there’s a showdown, during which the bad guys get killed and the good guys find a bitter redemption of sorts.
It’s the Western genre, and I give nothing away by revealing the shape of it. As that friend of mine in the arts world might say, it’s a trope, and genres are good. I love them. A decade ago, I was proven correct when I said that we’d see a sword-and-sandals movie and we did: Gladiator. I said we’d see a pirate movie, and we did – many. We saw a knights-and jousting movie. We saw the return of much more besides, including a lot of dross. Westerns came back with a vengeance, and though Unforgiven is now nearly 20 years old, it marked a move to even more realistic grittiness, first heralded by Eastwood himself in the late Sixties.
Open Range gave us more explicit violence and the sort of gunfights where everyone misses because they’re all shit-scared, but I think True Grit sets a different standard. It doesn’t eclipse Unforgiven, nor its own predecessor, but it’s different.
John Wayne it is not, though there are many nods to the original in this Coen brothers’ remake. Jeff Bridges stinks, and I don’t refer to his acting. You can smell him off the screen. You just know this man does not wash. Matt Damon, I thought, does a pretty good job of LaBoeuf, or Mister Le Beef as they keep calling him, and the young Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, is simply astounding.
The Coens have gone for a very authentic look and sound. Everyone in this picture could have been lifted from the pages of the Old West, and the writers have adopted an interesting device by having all the characters speak in a formal, almost biblical, language. Even the bad guys speak in a well-structured, grammatically-correct way which, oddly, doesn’t jar at all, perhaps because when we think of the nineteenth century, we see copperplate writing and elaborate headlines.
In some ways, the language reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy, although such comparisons are always dangerous, especially when invoking a giant of contemporary literature, but I’m sure Cormac would forgive me since the film explores many of the themes of All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing. McCarthy’s John Grady Cole, has much in common with Mattie Ross, and I wouldn’t discount the possibility that he was influenced by the original True Grit when he wrote the character.
It’s very subtle and very clever, but the Coens don’t leave it at that. The violence is explicit but not gratuitous. It’s appropriate to the moment and to the time.
The Rooster Cogburn played by Bridges is a brutal man, a killer, a kicker of Indian children, but not a sadist. He’s a drunk but he can shoot straight with a bottle of whiskey in his gut, and he knows when the time is right to shoot a man in the face, just as he knows when the time is right to come back and save a child from murder.
This isn’t a movie full of agonising ethical dilemmas. Like most genre movies, it’s a cartoon, and the characters are ciphers, as they should be in any good Western, but they’re interesting ciphers, with a back story and a unique voice that marks them out from the other ciphers inhabiting the tale.
Go and see this picture. Come back and say what you think.