What Little Girls Are Made Of
As regular readers will be all too aware, I have been rambling on about films in the Post now for nearly ten years. Ten years! And of course, in this time I have cast my eye upon a wide range of films, good, bad, and ugly, right across the mainstream and beyond. If nothing else, as a result, I feel qualified to say that never has a genre fallen out of favour so completely and surprisingly as the western: this is only the third film of this type to have crossed my path in that time.
Other staples of the previous decade that seemed to have gone terminally out of fashion, such as the musical and the historical epic, have enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, but the western's thunder and essence appears to have gone for good, its mythic status and moral certainties absorbed by other types of film. This is not to say that people have actually stopped making westerns, or pseudo-westerns, entirely: they haven't. (I could name a string of movies from the last twenty years that comfortably fit the description, but that would be showing off.) But when someone makes what looks like a classic western and possesses genuine quality, it's always treated as some kind of throwback to a bygone era.
Latest to get this attention (and the critical acclaim which often follows) is Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit, based on Charles Portis's novel and the 1969 adaptation which starred John Wayne. (The Coen version is the only one I am familiar with, alas.) Set in the late 1870s, this is the story of Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered by an intinerant ne'er-do-well (Josh Brolin). With the authorities apparently indifferent, she retains the somewhat-eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father's killer to justice. Also on his trail is the self-regarding Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and together the trio set off into the lawless Indian Nation in pursuit of their quarry.
The first thing I have to say about True Grit is that it does seem like an oddity, a film which exists in a niche of its own rather than as part of any great tradition. The setting and the plot contain many staples of the genre – wide open spaces, sudden bursts of violence, themes of justice, revenge, and the loss of innocence – but at no time does it seem to be trying to say anything about what it means to be American today. It's absolutely a period piece, set in and concerned with a particular time in the past. This is driven home by the rather florid dialogue given to everyone involved – fine old words like nincompoop and braggadocio get wheeled out for their first high-profile appearances in years.
Having said that, this is still a very good film – although not, I would say, in quite the same league as some of the others it's in competition with for the season's major gongs. It looks superb, and the contrast between the civilised regions where the film opens and closes, and the wilderness where the meat of it is set, is firmly drawn. The script is similarly solid, and manages to incorporate some subtle pieces of Coen weirdness without dragging the entire film off-course.
But on the whole I think I will remember it best for the performances of the three leads (Brolin has very little screen-time). As one would expect, Jeff Bridges is immaculate, and doesn't appear to be channelling Wayne too much. Reports of his performance being unintelligible have been somewhat exaggerated, too. Damon is very decent as well, in a slightly less showy (and certainly secondary) role. But the main plaudits must go to Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an astonishingly self-possessed and mature performance, basically as the main character of the movie.
Film historians of the future will, I predict, be baffled as to why Steinfeld's only been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by AMPAS, when she effectively carries the film. A somewhat craven decision based on which category she's most likely to win, I suspect. Well, the main gong no doubt has Natalie Portman's name on it, I suppose, but it's still doing Steinfeld an enormous disservice to suggest this isn't her movie: it is. Hollywood will be beating a path to her door now, and – like all great discoveries of recent years – you can expect her to pop up in a brain-deficient action movie requiring her to use ten percent of her talent very soon.
I'm not entirely sure that fans of old-style westerns will find True Grit completely satisfying as an example of the genre – it's a little too measured and restrained for that, lacking the sheer emotional charge that the best westerns can generate – whether that emotion is exhilaration, foreboding, or one of many others. But on its own terms, and as a piece of historical drama, it's virtually flawless.