In the Old West a man is
murdered by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for his gold and
horses. Looking to avenge his death is the man's fourteen-year-old
daughter, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). She's a tenacious young girl
who arrives by herself in town to try and sell some of her father's
horses back to the original trader. She also looks to employ a man who
will be able to hunt down and capture Chaney. One of the men suggested
to her is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken Marshall, in court
for shooting someone in cold blood. Mattie also meets the Texas Ranger
LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also looking to bring Chaney in for a
different murder. LaBoeuf decides to team up with Cogburn. They they
take off without Mattie but, true to her resilience and determination,
she takes up after the men to join them in the pursuit.
The Coen brothers have touted
this not as a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 Western (which starred
John Wayne as Cogburn), but as a readaptation of Charles Portis' 1968
novel. There is some contention to this as many scenes in this version
run parallel to the original film. Regardless, the story still finds
relevance today, with America's sense of violent righteousness in the
Vietnam War now replaced by paralells to religious fundamentalism,
extreme right-wing politics and America's hotly debated involvement in
global conflicts; if anything, this modern critique is the stronger of
The film smartly opens with a
quote from The Old Testament, The Book of Proverbs: "The wicked flee
when no one pursues". This is followed by an early scene where three men
are publicly executed. Their hanging is met by applause from the crowd.
The notion of justice being drawn from the power of Christianity is
continued and felt most heartedly by the Bible-quoting Ross. Her belief
that nothing is free except the grace of God fuels her tenacity and her
drive, thus embodying the notion of American accomplishment through
Aesthetically, the Coen brothers
have rarely shown as much restraint and poise in their craft as they
have here. They have stripped back their penchant for bizarre comic
characters to make what is most simply a beautiful, classic Western.
Their attention to detail and their delicacy is at times stunning.
Consider the close-up of LaBoeuf's spurs on the back of his boots, the
crooked teeth of the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper, or the way the snowdrops
fall as Ross and Cogburn ride through the woods together. The Coen's
never linger too long on landscape shots, though, and the film's quiet
beauty is deliberately offset by the dark costumes and dusty gravel
roads, reminding us of the era's conservatism and its often primitive
way of life.
Equally authentic is the
performance of Hailee Steinfeld, a then thirteen-year old in her first
feature. Amidst the presence of several Hollywood heavyweights, she is
extraordinary. The confidence and the self-assurance she displays is
precisely what was intended for this role. She plays it perfectly. There
is no better choice in Hollywood to play a drunkard than Bridges,
either. It might not seem too dissimilar from some of the characters
he's played before, but beyond his dishevelled face he convinced me that
there was once a more resourceful Marshall in Cogburn.
Matt Damon has more presence
than Glen Campbell did (in the 1969 film) as LaBoeuf. There's more
feeling and tension amongst this group, too, which helps quell some of
the sagginess felt in the middle portion of the original movie. In
particular, I enjoyed seeing the change in the Ross-LaBoeuf relationship
from business rivals to one of a gentle admiration. The only flaw with
the performances is that the characters can be difficult to understand
at times, their heavy southern drawl having been written straight from
the period. It becomes a problem especially when combined with Bridges'
slurred speeches. There is also the thought that those who have seen the
original already will have a particularly clear idea of the arch of the
film's narrative. Nonetheless, it's been beautifully crafted and
performed and like all the very best Westerns, it's pitched with a
timeless moral compass.
If you loved True Grit at the
movies, than the Blu-ray version has definitely been designed for you.
It contains a wealth of extras that goes into some detail about the
creation of this powerful film but lacks commentary by the Cohen
Brothers and cast unfortunately. It also features a DVD and digital copy
of the film, so you can enjoy the movie on a variety of formats. Video
and Audio quality is outstanding and Paramount continue to the leaders
in quality releases.
Disc 1 Blu-ray
Behind the Scenes with
Outfitting the Old West:
Buckskins, Chaps and Cowboy Hats
Cotts, Winchesters &
Remingtons: The Guns of a Post-Civil War Western
Re-creating Fort Smith
Charles Portis - The
Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of...
The Cinematography of
Blu-ray Feature Film
Disc 2 DVD