Old Cowboy Storiesby Kavish Chetty / 17.02.2011
My youth was saturated with the imagery of cowboys and the western frontier myth. My brother and I would slither down the street to the corner cafe and confront the arcade machines. I’d drop my 20 cents in with expert timin’, and play Sunset Riders: double-barrelled shotguns, wide-brimmed hats, several digitised MIDI yells of “yahoo” and a whole utopia of Japanese filtered (Konami was behind the production) western mythology. In early adolescence it was the pulp fiction of Elmore Leonard; in later teenagehood it was Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.
The thing with westerns is that they stoke up passions: either you love them, or you couldn’t care less. The latter opinion wouldn’t be too odd to find these days – the western has become altogether discredited and has lost its currency. There’s the odd attempt at a revival – 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa – but the more streetwise cinema-goer is likely to favour Jim Jarmusch’s acid-western odyssey Dead Man. That pretty much subverts the whole history and image of the western, showing off the power dynamics that support the western myth and rewriting its lopsided stories.
Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think guns and horses ever die. They may be nothing more than a magisterial cliché, but those plumes of dust kicked up by steeds, and those plumes of smoke ejected from six-shooters still keep me wildly entertained. True Grit, the new film from the now much-praised and universally-loved Coen brothers is exactly that. It’s a simple, dark western journey; its motion pictures are superbly captured and beautiful to look at; it has an exciting narrative – but all that said, it doesn’t provoke, and it doesn’t subvert. You watch this movie for the pure entertainment of the movie-going experience.
Perhaps the only thing that could provoke in this film is its protagonist. An exceptionally capable and stubborn 14 year old girl, Mattie Ross (played brilliantly by Hailee Steinfeld) whose father has been murdered, and while the justice system has better vendettas to keep itself busy with, she wants her vengeance. So she employs the hardest bounty-hunter in the west, “Rooster” Cogburn, played by Coen brothers’ favourite Jeff Bridges, to cross into Choctaw territory and hunt down her mark. We’re talking Bridges here of The Big Lebowski – the dude, el duder, duderino, your royal dudeness himself – and he plays the loose cannon Cogburn full of questing drunkenness and cynical nonchalance. Matt Damon also stars importantly as the Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, helping along on the hunt for Tom Chaney (another Coen favourite, Josh Brolin), murderer and general bad-ass.
Perhaps the static of Oscar-talk that accompanies this film suggests that in certain quarters, the Western is still longingly looked upon as a sacred treasure of the American consciousness and a Hollywood staple. In picture, this film captures the wild west in its rugged splendour. A perfectly frigid and bleak shot shows the riders, snow-whipped and stationary in a blizzard of icy white. Elsewhere, the blistered desert and its pustules of rock roll ever forward in panoramic shots that hint at the “freedom of the new world”; the “virgin” territory, where not one single native American gets represented. But in story, this film tells a remade, updated postmodern tale (based on the 1969 John Wayne version, and more closely, the novel by Charles Portis). A chase is given across the wilderness, shots are fired, standoffs are staged, that old nostalgia for the whipping-up “yeehaw!” is properly slaked.
So what you get is a cinematographic wet dream of the birth of western civilisation, and it must be noted, almost Dickensian dialogue (some of it rather witty) that veers far away from the older incarnations of the genre. The new Coen film lacks much of the appeal of some of the paragons of their work; the absurdity is very much toned down, the idiocy is absent and so is the subversive comic undertone. Perhaps a great deal closer to No Country for Old Men, this film is coiffured and beautiful and if the power of the western still thrills you, absolutely worth watching.