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Cinema visit: True Grit

A much happier film-going experience than the last entry in these chronicles. I would say that it came within sight of being a full five-star film but was an entirely excellent four-star in its own right. I should note that I've neither read the original novel nor seen the first film adaptation so this is a review of the 2011 True Grit only. And it's worth pointing out again that I don't tend to do spoiler-free reviews!

In writing this review, I find myself as amused as ever by how much harder it is to quantify positive responses than negative! I think it's because for me, at any rate, negative responses to a film or book are often occasioned by failures to create a harmonious whole and therefore there is a jarring note, whether of character, setting, writing, acting or anything else for that matter. Therefore there are certain discrete things that stand out and can be enumerated. But when everything goes right it's much, much harder to try and tease detail from a complete thing; I find that it's very easy to simply say “I liked it!” several times and not go into much more detail, which is a terrible habit.

So with that in mind, I'll start with the story which it was beautifully and subtly told, and bittersweet overall, which I think is entirely fitting for a modern-day take on the Western. It's not a genre I know well, but I have more of a place in my heart for this film's lament for times gone by than for the more macho “lone heroes and macho posses” that are also part and parcel of the genre. This is the tale of 14 year old Maddie Ross, framed by her much older self, who sets out to avenge her father's death at the hands of a criminal whom the law are completely uninterested in catching. She retains Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, to track down the murderer, and the two then end up working with LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is also on the man's trail. They eventually find their man and she kills him.

At the end of the film, the now adult Ross picks up the story to say that she never saw Cogburn again – and that's one of the most bittersweet momets of all. He saved her life, riding through the night to get her treatment for the rattlesnake bite she sustaineed during the last fight but is gone when she wakes – and when many years later she gets the message that a very ill Cogburn wants to see her she arrives too late. As a side note, I appreciated the fact that the older Maddie is still the independent soul she always was. It would have been tempting to pair her with someone who could cope with her being so far from her society's vision of acceptable gender-roles – but not that realistic. Myself, I like to think that she of the available options she was happier unmarried.

The performances are amazing, especially Hailee Steinfeld. She earned six stars all on her own; that was an amazing performance and she just owned the screen and the story at all points. I'm not the first to express utter disbelief and horror at Steinfeld's Oscar nomination being for Supporting Actress and Bridges' being for Best Actor. Supporting! I'm sure there's some obscure point of Oscar-law behind it but it's still quite perfectly insane that the central character and whole focus of the film is classified as a supporting role. It's especially galling because Bridges knows that his isn't the main character; his Cogburn is a marvellous, restrained supporting role to Steinfeld's Ross and they both know it.

Oh, and a further note on the performances: I actually think it was the strength of the individual performances that stood in the way of the film being an outright five, paradoxically enough. We knew everything about the various characters from the actors' work as individuals, not from their relationships. And I think that's the vanishingly small thing that was missing; the occasional shared glance or reaction between Ross and Cogburn especially. The scene where Ross and LaBoeuf make their peace and he acknowledges his misjudgement was one of the most memorable of the film and I would have loved to have seen some more of that. I'm more than happy with the film I did see, though!

The cinematography was gorgeous and did an amazing job of showing distant lands far beyond the bounds of the characters' world, all hills, wide open spaces, and camps by firelight. I have no way of knowing if the American frontier ever looked as it does in Westerns so I can't comment on the realism – but it was note-perfect in capturing what Western films should look like, irrespective of how that may or may not connect to reality.

All in all, a quite excellent film!
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Missing Opossum

April 2012

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