True Grit Revives the Western Genre

March 04, 2011
True Grit Revives the Western Genre

This past holiday season, as with every year, incurred a relatively modest selection of films at the box office, this in quantity as much as quality. Most people don’t make it a point to attend the cinemas during the winter season, what with Christmas and the other various holidays which fill our time, and as a result Hollywood doesn’t bother much with the release of genre heavy action films. But one movie drew my attention. Let’s put aside the fact that it is direct by Ethan and Joel Cohen, arguably two of Hollywood’s most prominent directors, and let’s even overlook the reality that it stars Jeff Bridges; a face suffusing most of the films currently in theatres. It’s a western, which have become since the days of Sergio Leone, increasingly scarce. With the successful release of Red Dead Redemption on our culture’s most prominent consoles, interest seems waxing in the cowboy mythology and it comes as no surprise that Hollywood is quick to follow the trend. However, it’s not yet the summer season, a busy period for genre heavy films, so you know True Grit won’t be a garden variety shoot-em-up.

The impression that you are in fact watching a western is never specifically felt during the movie. Instead, archetypal representations of good and evil and drawn out shooting sequences are substituted for a slower, unaccountably more intense experience which is surprising in view of the movie’s overall synopsis.

The story is ostensibly about a young girl who seeks redemption for her father’s murder at the hands of a notorious criminal (Josh Brolin). She travels into the nearby town to enlist the aid of a U.S marshal with funds dubiously procured through extortion. The town sheriff suggests three names as possible candidates for her bounty hunter but one seems to shine out above the rest. Plainly described as a violent drunkard who prefers out-and-out murder to bringing in prisoners, Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is hired after a few false starts. Riding alongside the girl and her marshal is a Ranger by the name of Lebeef (Matt Damon) who is seeking the same man for a crime committed in Texas.

The story leaves ample room for overblown sequences of stylized violence and typical character development in a world of lawlessness, but True Grit never strays into these clichéd boundaries, instead focusing on interpersonal relationships between the girl and her companions. The Cohen brothers are wont to eschewing our generation’s penchant towards genre films and instead create their own universe wherein violence is just as plainly perpetrated as a dialogue scene. There are no traditional moments of supernatural gun slinging skill, no hackneyed monologues about the importance of justice, just a straight forward no-nonsense story of revenge.

Unlike The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967), we aren’t in a world of legendary figures who dish out vigilante justice in the flash of a pistol, and unlike Unforgiven (1994) we aren’t watching the merciless deconstruction of the western myth. True Grit is a story well within the realm of reality and I think the Cohen Brothers have inadvertently become the heralds of their very own sub-genre in this area. There is nothing typical about their films. The jokes aren’t crude one liners, instead consisting of with a dark philosophical humour that borders on self-reflection. The action is as jarring as it is sporadic when we are suddenly privy to abhorrent scenes of murder which just as quickly subside into light comedy.

True Grit is no exception and should be viewed promptly before the box office is inundated with spring romance flicks.

— Max

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