It goes without saying that Joel and Ethan Coen’s update of the 1969 western which earned John Wayne his solitary Oscar represents a departure in approach, interpretation and tone. The Charles Portis novel on the surface would seem ripe for the brothers’ patented plucking and yet, while they make a movie more suited to our time, it must be said they haven’t quite made one likely to outlast it. Confoundingly, the book’s dark humor continues to elude attempts at screen adaptation.
This is a film with its share of nice touches, yet one which fails to rank with the brothers’ truly top notch stuff. Not that the Coens haven’t assembled an A team on all fronts. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is a high priest of his profession and, after so many collaborations, can probably pretty much read the fraternal filmmakers’ minds. He does sublime work here. True Grit is something to see even if every minute of it isn’t necessarily worth watching.
Likewise, Carter Burwell’s score is a thing of transcendent, evocative beauty. The heavily styled dialogue, as adapted by the brothers, preserves Portis’ odd formality (in the 1870s the contraction evidently had yet to be invented) but, again, mysteriously drains all but trace elements of the author’s wry wit. And then there’s the cast, several members of which have appeared in previous Coen productions. In each case, the performances they give this time around pale next to work they’ve done in the past.
Jeff Bridges’ iconic Dude, for example, is in no danger of being eclipsed by his capable but familiar Rooster Cogburn. The actor plays the irascible lawman and drunkard essentially as an older, grumpier version of the country singer and drunkard Bad Blake, the role which earned him his Oscar in Crazy Heart just last year. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own as Mattie Ross, the Arkansas 14-year-old who hires Cogburn to bring her father’s murderer to justice.
Accompanying the pair on their perilous trek through Choctaw territory is a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf and played by Matt Damon. He’s game and does his darndest to embody the character the Coens want as a foil to Cogburn. The problem is they seem to have been unable to make up their minds as to just what sort of character that should be. One minute he’s spying on the young girl as she sleeps and pervily speaks of “stealing a kiss.” The next, he’s the Dudley Do-Right of the bunch, singing the praises of his carbine and spouting the Ranger motto like a tumbleweed boy scout.
Their manhunt has its highpoints-a run in with cohorts of the fellow they’re tracking and a shoot out with a notorious gang (Barry Pepper plays its leader and, I swear, looks like he’s had plastic surgery to turn him into Harry Dean Stanton. It’s a good look for him.) are wild west fun but hardly classic movie moments.
That’s the thing about True Grit. Compare it with a Coen masterpiece like No Country for Old Men and you’ll see what I mean immediately: There’s more suspense, mystery and poetry in the scene when Javier Bardem flips a coin and orders the gas station owner to “call it” than in this entire picture. Great care clearly went into its making. Great cinema simply proved beyond its grasp.
I am customarily pleased as punch to get the chance to watch Josh Brolin at work but have to say he too has been far finer and more memorable in front of the Coens’ camera. His Tom Chaney-the killer whose entrance comes some 80 plus minutes into the picture-is a generic frontier miscreant so sketchily conceived the viewer is unlikely to prove much invested in the character’s fate. The film’s final moments border on the anticlimactic.
Good guys, bad guys-ultimately, they’re all merely so-so footnotes in the mixed bag that is the brothers’ filmography. It required a degree of artistic grit to remake a chestnut as beloved as this one and they gave it a hell of a shot. In this case, unfortunately, their aim wasn’t true.