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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  True Grit
Directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen (2010)

    Animal Kingdom 
    Directed by David Michod (2010)


Justice has always been a big theme of westerns. The frontier between the Wild West and eastern states, where the law was becoming increasingly professionalised, formalised and codified, is frequently the scene where the nature of true justice is argued out.

So in the new Coen Brothers version of True Grit, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks out a particular kind of old fashioned law man to track down her fatherís killer.

She finds him in Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a serial killer himself, but, as he points out, only when the victim had it coming. Itís a logic of justice, but not the one being established in the emergent modern age.

Thatís represented, though ambivalently, by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Heís in pursuit of the same man, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), but for a different crime, the murder of a senator. He offers his services to Mattie but she turns him down. Her fatherís death is far more important than the senatorís, and of course, to her it is.

Her justice is the personalised, not the politicised kind.

Skip forward 150 years or so and weíre in gangland Australia, and official justice is still coming up short.

In the stunning opening scene of Animal Kingdom outsize teenager Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) is watching a game show while his mother is slumped next to him on the settee, apparently sleeping. Heís startled by a knock at the door which turns out to be an ambulance crew which Joshua, or J, has himself called.

His mother has ODíd on heroin, and while the paramedics fight for her life J continues to gawp at the telly.

When sheís dead he calls his grandmother. He wants to know what to do. But itís not an emotional crisis but a bureaucratic one. He needs help to fill in the forms.

The grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), known as Smurf, takes him in and introduces him to her four wayward sons, armed robbers. He joins the gang without thinking about it too much Ė itís just what we do, he says. But his voiceover betrays a deeper, darker analysis. His brothers live in fear, because they know that, sooner or later, crooks get found out.

Is this true? Perhaps only on the telly and in films. But the gang does start to unravel when the police, in a Rooster Cogburn moment, kill one of the brothers. The nice one whoís thinking of going straight and playing the stock exchange instead.

The nastiest brother, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), who they bizarrely refer to as Pope, escalates the mundane criminality to murderous, sadistic levels. But the law fails to put him away. Justice, instead, must be dealt by J, who becomes the proof of his own theory, the author of his own story.

If there was a straight fight between these two films, which there isnít, Animal Kingdom would win. True Grit is tightly crafted, beautifully shot and written in a mesmerising dialogue which knows not the apostrophe. And Steinfeld, who is even younger than the character she plays, is brilliant.

Yet there is always something missing in a Coen Brothers film. Theyíre great when youíre watching them, the Coens have the rare power to create a whole world you can sink into and believe. But when you come out itís as if nothing has stuck with you. Itís just a picture.

The Cody family, though, theyíre a worry.

March 7, 2010

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