Joel and Ethan Coen are the genius film-making brothers who have perfected the art of taking a genre, any genre, and subverting it to make their very own superlative versions. The brothers have been making masterpieces like Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, O Brother Where Art Thou, and No Country For Old Men since the 1980s. In Hollywood they have the rare honour of being allowed "final cut" by their producers - this means that they have the unusual privilege of always approving the final version of their films - with no producer interference whatsoever. You'll never see a "Director's Cut" version of a Coen brother's film simply because each of their films turns out exactly as they want them to.
With True Grit, the 2010 remake of the 1969 version starring John Wayne, the brother's have taken yet another classic genre and put their unmistakeable stamp on it. Westerns are gritty, some people avoid this gun-slinging, fast talking genre altogether, but this version of True Grit ought to unmissable.
Starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed US Marshall who ends up shooting dead most of the criminals he pursues, Matt Damon as the slightly goofy, overly learned Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced LuhBeef), and the wonderful newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the 14 year old Mattie Ross, the characters in themselves are a rare delight to watch. The story is simple enough, Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who shot her father, stole his two gold pieces, and skipped town on a horse he stole from his murdered victim. Cogburn agrees, reluctantly, to take on Mattie's case after she agrees to pay him a hundred dollars (fifty up front) for his services. Although a hyper-articulate and skilled negotiator, the 14 year old Mattie does not, however, manage to persuade Cogburn to take her along for the chase.
In an unforgettable sequence Mattie jumps on her plucky new pony "Blackie" and pursues Cogburn who has tricked her by setting out before daylight. He has crossed the river on a ferry and has paid off the ferryman to escort Mattie back to town. Furious and determined, Mattie plunges into the river and hangs on to Blackie's neck as the marvellous horse swims across the river. On the other side await a dour Cogburn and a livid LaBoeuf who has joined the former to pursue Chaney who he has been tracking since he murdered a senator (over a dog) in Texas. LaBoeuf spanks Mattie, Cogburn points his gun at LaBoeuf to make him stop, and thus begins an unforgettable adventure with three hilarious and unforgettable characters.
There are many, many charming aspects to this film, but perhaps the one that is the most pleasing is the excellent dialogue. Everyone speaks in full sentences, replete with rich, unusual words and some very original turns of phrase. When Mattie's gun, the one she got from her dead father, misfires she is captured by Chaney's gang and the following is the exchange between the pert Mattie and the ring-leader "Lucky" Ned Pepper:
Mattie Ross: If I had killed Chaney, I would not be in this fix; but my gun misfired.
Lucky Ned Pepper: [Chuckling] They will do it. It will embarrass you every time. Most girls like to play pretties, but you like guns do you?
Mattie Ross: I do not care a thing about guns, if I did, I would have one that worked.
In the end it's hard to say which of the three characters is the one who has the true "grit" from the title. Even if you don't like "Westerns", watch this one. It is truly worth-while just to see the unusual spectacle of a 14 year old girl track across the Wild Wild West with two crotchety, yet strangely loveable men in search of her father's killer.
All DVDs reviewed in this column are available in the writer's favourite DVD store: Music and Expression, Thamel, Phone # 014700092