“Forty years later, the Duke has become the Dude, with a small Duchess.”
Based on the original source material – which was very much focused on John Wayne – and the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking of this as just another macho Western. However, I read some pieces which suggested that wasn’t the case, with the story [as in the original novel] told from the viewpoint of teenage girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), who hires drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to hunt down the outlaw (Brolin), who killed her father. That is indeed the case – despite Steinfeld getting an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, while Bridges was listed for Best Actor. Go figure.
For Ross is one of the most impressive teenage girl characters to appear in a recent Hollywood film, being resolute, smart, brave and resourceful: that’s clear from the scene where she completely out-haggles the businessman with whom her father had been dealing. You can almost imagine Mattie growing up to become Marge Gunderson in the Coen’s Fargo: there’s much the same dogged determination, in a form which causes those who oppose Mattie to severely underestimate her. More in tune with her age, I was also reminded of Lyra Belacqua from The Golden Compass, whose heroine also found herself with an unenviable task, and had to man girl up and get through it. Here, from the moment Mattie plunges into the river on her horse, while Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Damon) watch from the far side, she’s in a completely different, alien world.
I was much less impressed with Bridges’ performance. Fair enough that he chose not to try and reproduce Wayne’s iconic role: however, the route in which he chose to do so is unfortunate, not least because it’s largely inaudible. He mumbles every line so badly, you’re largely reduced to picking words out where you can, and trying to work out what he said by the other characters’ replies. It’s only right at the end that he comes across as being much more than a drunken buffoon, and it’s difficult to fathom why Ross picked him rather than LeBoeuf, who projects a far more compelling air of confidence. With Wayne, there was a sense of faded, decrepit glory: Bridges’ version of Cogburn is less a has-been than a never-was.
That said, there’s something refreshing about the way this is…well, not refreshing. By that, I mean there is little or no attempt to re-invent or “reboot” the Western genre: it’s lasted for approaching a century, so the basic tenets don’t really need changing. So while there are some understated moments of humour, e.g. the last words of the men about to be hanged, the focus is clear: Mattie and her goal of extracting justice on the man who killed her father. It’s a simple story, well told.
Dir: The Coen Brothers
Star: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin