True Grit Review

As stalwart as he was in the Western genre, John Wayne provided few performances that could carry a film to the finish line. I say that with a real love for the genre, but only a small handful of the films Wayne starred in during his glory days do anything at all for me. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly the high point to a series of otherwise tolerable and forgettable westerns. True Grit seemed like the jewel in his crown, an Oscar-winning performance that saw us in the waning years of the genre, unable to compete or contend with the rise of dramatics elsewhere. This would be far from the last western Wayne would star in, but True Grit does feel like a farewell to the old and a welcoming embrace of the new. 

The maturity and ageing of Wayne surely make up the core of this film. His twilight years ahead of him, he plays a more established figure, one who has retired from his heyday to live out life in a quiet pocket of land. He’s brought back into the fray once more, though, after being hired to avenge the father of Mattie Ross (Kim Darby). The reputation of Reuben J Cogburn, much like Wayne himself, precedes him. His legendary status in his field of work has garnered attention and praise from those around, and it sets our story off on the right track. It doesn’t quite capture the magic Wayne could provide, not entirely anyway. He gives a good performance, but not something all that memorable, it doesn’t feel quite as in touch as his rousing work in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, nor is it as twinkly-eyed and ranged as his work in Rio Grande. 

Range is effectively the greatest weapon Wayne has, so to see him use it rather simplistically here is a tragic shame. Starring alongside some future huge names, the likes of Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall join us on screen for some immediately forgettable roles that, if anything, will have bulked their CV up a little bit. There isn’t anything in this film that strikes me as overly bad or engrossingly good, it toes the middle ground far too often, it may have something to do with the less-than-stellar direction of Henry Hathaway. He gets the job done, but there’s no sense of a unique voice, and considering this is his finest hour, it’s quite an oddity to note that he has nothing to say. No underlying message, no quirk or trick up his sleeve to freshen up his direction. Nothing.  

Still, the complacency in front of and behind the camera comes together better than most films. True Grit may not have been the exceptionally moving western I was expecting, no contrite characteristics or reflection, which feels like a worthy field for the writing here. Instead, we receive some wholly forgettable supporting characters, muted direction, and a man looking to kick a bit of life into a genre on its last legs. True Grit is an acceptable feature. It has Wayne’s natural charm paired with a story of revenge, and that’s about as good as it gets. 

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