Friday, January 21, 2011

True Grit

The Western genre has been dying a slow death since the early 1960s—or so we’re told. But genres are categories, not organisms. They can’t die. For that matter, most of the Westerns made during the 1950s are second-rate. In fact, most Westerns are second-rate, period, maybe because didactic violence and wide-open landscapes are hard to hold together on the big screen.

The string of very good “modern” Westerns is long and fairly impressive. It runs from High Noon (a take on the McCarthy witch-hunt?) and Rio Bravo ( Howard Hawks’ masterful remake of High Noon) to the Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Missouri Breaks (the quintessential “method” Western), and Heaven’s Gate (not as bad as they say…or so they say) and on up to Days of Heaven, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Open Range, and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. And that’s not to mention the numerous campy contributions of Sergio Leone to the genre, many of then shot in Spain, which culminated in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Now the Coen brothers have entered the field with a remake of True Grit. It follows a few days in the life of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl who’s determined to avenge the murder of her father, and it’s a picaresque affair. Mattie holds her own in encounters with stable managers, Texas Rangers, U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and outlaws of various stripes. Everyone in the film speaks with a slightly bookish diction, though Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) tends to slur, growl, or grunt his lines, and the Ranger (Matt Damon) gives them a slightly affected lilt, in keeping with his somewhat dandified character.

There are touches of classic Coen-bros black humor here and there in the film—for example, during a public hanging the Native American convict isn’t given a fair chance to deliver his last words—but for the most part, it’s a lovely recreation of the Old West, and even though the man-hunt that occupies the second half of the film takes place in winter, the landscapes are wonderfully rendered (well, it is New Mexico) and the cabin scenes are far more deftly lit (hence less phony-looking) than is typical of the genre.

True Grit has been called the “least ironic” of the Coen Brothers’ films, which may explain why it’s been the most successful. It may eventually surpass Dances with Wolves to become the most popular Western of all time. Jeff Bridges is a genuine riot, finally earning his Oscar one year after the fact, and Hailee Steinfeld, a relative newcomer to film in the role of Mattie Ross, succeeds at being a charming kid notwithstanding her fierce determination to hunt down and punish her father’s killer. The hymn-laden soundtrack also contributes to the atmosphere, which is as richly “western” as anything you’ll see in Stagecoach or Shane.

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