Saturday, 15 January 2011

Hailee Shows True Grit

true grit

True Grit, written and directed by The Cohen Brothers from the novel by Charles Portis, tells the tale of fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to track down and bring to justice the man who murdered her father in cold blood, one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After asking around, Mattie hires grizzled, drunkard US Marshall Rueben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track Chaney in to Indian territory, taking her along too. However a Texas Ranger called LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s been on Chaney’s trail for earlier crimes in Texas, rides along with them to try and collect his own reward for bringing Chaney in.

And that’s pretty much all there is to the story.

True Grit is a straightforward manhunt through the wilds of Indian country while Mattie and Cogburn and LeBoeuf argue and fight and bond as they pursue their goal. The plotting is simple A to Z with no real twists or turns or deviations. And though simple it may be, it is also supremely elegant and rich in subtext and thematic depth. For True Grit is a story about family, about what makes a family, what people will do to keep a family together and what they will do for that family even beyond death itself. It has religious undercurrents around redemption and Old Testament eye for an eye vengeance vs. the competing need for true justice to be seen to be done.

The Cohen Brothers direct the film with the same elegant simplicity yet subtle depth as they did when writing its screenplay. And the film looks stunning too. Roger Deakins photography is breathtaking and requires this film to be seen on a the biggest screen possible. The design and art direction is Western perfect and the lovely score by Carter Burwell is as elegantly simple as the rest of the film. It is quiet and sad, the main theme sounding like an old-style hymn.

But what really sets this film apart and elevates it are the performances. All are great. But one stands head and shoulders above the rest.

As Mattie, young Hailee Steinfeld is quite simply stunning.

Hers is a performance that stays with you. You watch her and you marvel at the maturity, the finely tuned emotion and depth of dramatic delivery. There is so much going on behind her eyes. This is an utterly convincing and mesmerising performance. Steinfeld owns this film. Make no mistake Mattie is the central character. This is her film, her story from the first frame to the last. It is told entirely through her eyes. Everyone else is mere support. To me, the ‘true grit’ of the title is hers. Mattie is a force of nature. A girl with a will of iron and a sharp, smart, determined mind. She will get what she wants come hell or high water. Literally. Hailee should get an Oscar nom for lead actress for this. And as much as I love Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Hailee deserves to win.

In support, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is great as well. All grizzled, grumbling, shuffling, mumbling old man. Cogburn is a worn down soul filled with regret but with a natural ability to do his job and a nature that allows him to care about what really matters…even if he has to dig down deep beneath his own boozy and battle worn demeanour. As LeBoeuf, Damon is also very good. The Texas Ranger is at first a cocky, unlikable sort but soon proves he has worth and grows to become appreciated, if not by Cogburn, then certainly by Mattie. And the feeling becomes mutual. Brolin as Chaney is good too - even if his role is pretty brief and fairly one note. He’s a mumbling, stumbling fool who clearly has no idea what he’s doing or what to do next. Making more of an impact is Barry Pepper as Chaney’s new gang boss. A villain, sure, but he’s one with some kind of internal sense of decency. He’ll kill and rob but not without good reason. His quiet moments with Mattie are really rather intriguing and quite touching in a strange way.

But then that’s the thing about this movie.

There are bad people doing good things and good people doing bad things – all for varying reasons, sometimes by pure accident. Life in this world is harsh and brutally tough. It often is kill or be killed. And yet simple humanity and kindness still can shine through.

True Grit is a film that entertains hugely and can also inspire through its wonderful central performance and the ideas of family bonds and of battling on against all the odds. In that way it is very similar to Winter’s Bone, also a tale of a young girl searching against terrible odds to learn the truth and to protect her family. And with another wonderful central performance by a gifted young actress as well. But always lurking beneath True Grit is a continual mournful sadness about loss and ruined and empty lives. This is brought home hugely at the end when we skip forward twenty-five years to see an older Mattie recalling the events of her childhood with Marshall Cogburn and what became of him and of her. We see where her single-minded determination has eventually led her. And it makes your heart feel heavy as the credits roll.

A brilliant, beautiful, mournful film with a stunning central performance and almost as good support, True Grit deserves to be a huge hit with audiences everywhere. Go see it. 5+ (out of 5)

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