Magnificent performances carry it but the film’s pacing saunters rather than burns. True Grit has certainly been hyped as a grand western and as a likely prize-winner for the Oscar season. The film is made by the Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man”) whom I believe are the best filmmakers in the world right now. Jeff Bridges, without a doubt, musters crazy heart longevity as the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Impressively feisty on a comparable scale is Hailee Steinfeld as the 14-year old girl Mattie Ross who heaps up a hundred bucks to pay the marshal to avenge her father’s death. The whole thing has a 19th century time capsule novelty to it for you never feel any contemporary imprints. The rough and tumble attitude gives it a gruff humor that is particularly augmented by the marvelously prickly Bridges. The whole thing is just good though, but not grand.
This is the first Coen Brothers movie in years that I am not particularly excited about rushing out to see it a second time. Perhaps after years of being such an enthusiastic follower I have set up too many great expectations with each new film by them. But “True Grit” often dawdles more than gallops, and about midway through, there was desire to see the horse riders hit upon a frontier that would be unlike anything seen before. But as western landscapes go this turns out to be some familiar territory. You never feel the crew giddy up and ride through the landscapes in one bolstered go, but instead you might sense the camera showing up on one patch of land and then filming the actors in scene. Then the next outpost. Patchy. But the Coen’s do strike up some star-gazing images in a select number of beautiful moments, and those images have a powerful lingering after-effect.
The Coen Brothers are as dependable as they always have been in servicing their characters with stoic and anachronistic dialogue that is matchless in the medium. Mattie Ross’ first challenge in the story is to negotiate with a horse herder over a breach of contract, and it is as pickled an exchange as was Javier Bardem’s encounter with the timorous gas station owner in “Old Men.” Bridges’ droll and crotchety testimony on the stand in court is equally as brilliant (it validates last year’s “Crazy Heart” Oscar). The twang is appropriately folksy on top of the stoicism but indeed true to 19th century times. You don’t question the veracity of its language. The source material is the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (grit poetry) and the comparison is the simplified first 1969 film version with John Wayne.
After some verbal prodding from Mattie (by the way, what a mature young actress!), old coot Rooster gets off his buns to go chase after her father’s killer. Aw-shucks Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, no Jason Bourne cockiness here) is a fellow bounty hunter who has traveled across the states to get the man, too. LaBoeuf is too hip to play second fiddle to an old man and too proud to be listening to the protests of any silly girl. His reputation is the gold star on his chest, and that’s enough for him.
The killer, and scoundrel, is said to be Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, last seen in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”). Is Chaney the psychopath that legend and Mattie’s avowal make him out to be? Surprisingly, Brolin doesn’t have much screen time but when he is on, he hits his mark. Equally formidable is Barry Pepper as Ned Pepper, who brings blaze to the griddle. But the single greatest terror in the Coen Brother’s take on the Old West are the rattlesnakes nesting in a cadaver. Wriggle out of there, hon.
Taking on comparisons between two film versions, there should be likely unanimous agreement that the remake has a richer and thicker final predicament, followed by a richer and further spanning ending – it’s pretty damn moving. It’s easy to reckon with the outstanding talents of Bridges and newcomer Steinfeld. Then there are astonishing shots of snowfall at dusk with horseback riders in eclipse that do more than just impress you, it leaves you awestruck, as if it gave conceptual birth to Old West mysticism. But even though the analogy doesn’t fit the genre, “True Grit” is one of the few Coen’s works, less than wild, that didn’t rock my world. You sense the old-fashioned craftsmanship along with the old-fashioned plodding of its pacing. Yet…. Yet…. that even though I wanted more from the Coens I still find Jeff Bridges so extraordinary that he makes it unforgettable anyway. The film will be remembered because of him. More than just good in retrospect. Very good overall.
Rated PG-13. 110 Minutes.
WESTERN / PSYCHODRAMA / FALL MOVIE
Film Cousins: “True Grit” (1968); “High Plains Drifter” (1973); “Unforgiven” (1992); “The Proposition” (2006).