BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Every director who is in love with the history of movie making seems to have a desire to mount a classic Western, so it is more than a little surprising that it took the Coen Brothers twenty-six years and fifteen features to get around to it. With the cast and talent assembled, True Grit seemed like one of the few sure bets of the holiday season, and sure enough, it is a finely-detailed, confidently-plotted piece of old-fashioned entertainment. Part of the reason True Grit has been so anxiously awaited is because the Coens had such success adapting Cormac McCarthy’s existential modern Western No Country For Old Men into an Academy Award-winning film just a few years back. Produced by Steven Spielberg, this Grit is more conventional then McCarthy’s bleak tale, which is a shame because this Western could use a little taste of the unexpected.
True Grit is also the first Coen Brothers film with a child as the main character. The relative newcomer, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old farm girl whose father was shot and robbed by the farm hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who then disappeared into Choctaw country. The local sheriff is too short-handed to send a man into the wilderness to drag Chaney to justice, so the stubborn Mattie takes it upon herself to hire a bounty hunter. Given the choice between the most honest and the meanest, she picks the meanest: a one-eyed, slow-moving, seen-it-all drunkard named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who testifies under oath that he has plenty of notches on his pistol handle. They’re joined in an uneasy alliance with a Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who has been chasing Chaney since he shot a State Senator (and his dog) back in Texas.
You could guess how all this is going to play out, and even if you didn’t see the 1969 version that Henry Hathaway directed with John Wayne, you’d be right. But the story is in the telling, and this Western road movie/detective story has plenty of interesting stops along the way. I was a little surprised to find out True Grit was a big, general release, playing everywhere for Christmas, but the Coen Brothers have dialed back their penchant for brute irony to deliver a film that could have just as easily been directed by Steven Spielberg, who served as producer on the project.
Still, the Coen’s do manage to invest the script with their patented Barton Fink Feeling — slightly over-written and whimsical, this time given a certain Huckleberry-Finn-meets-the-Old-Testament dialect, long on stilted pieties and short on contractions. It is a difficult duty to breathe life into this arch style and the film’s lead, Ms. Steinfeld, is only intermittently up to the challenge. She looks great, with her hard set jaw and her pigtails, but only about half the time does she seem to understand the words that she is saying. Of course the seasoned veteran Bridges barks it out effortlessly with a pirate’s rasp, but even his performance becomes a little one-note and over-determined by how much whiskey his character drank in the previous scene. Damon may get the most out of what is written on the page, his fussy dandy Texas Ranger has the most emotional range of anyone in the story, alternating between bluster and insecurity, troubled by his ineffectual pursuit of the wanted Chaney. And Brolin adds another impressive odd-ball character to his resume, his small stature and neanderthal features emphasizing the cowardly little man this Chaney actually is.
Yet for all these reservations, the sheer amount of talent and the sturdiness of novelist Charles Portis’ plotting makes True Grit fairly rousing entertainment. The story’s narrative drive is sure, Roger Deakin’s cinematography (as it was in The Assassination of Jesse James) is beautifully burnished and the cast is full of little-known, odd-looking characters who hint at a world beyond the camera frame’s borders.
The film’s finale works as an extended coming-of-age metaphor for Mattie’s burgeoning sexuality: menacing snakes, dark crevices, rough-ridden horses with Rooster in the position of a quasi-lover, all shown as a price to pay for taking up the manly blood sport of revenge. What? This all comes out of the blue, except for that similarly jarring moment when LaBoeuf admits he was considering kissing the 14 year-old girl. The Coens jam the theme in the story without warning, like they were secretly licking their chops the whole time at the previously de-sexualized young Mattie. It makes for an odd end note, casting an air of illicit sex into the what otherwise is the closest thing they’ve made to a family adventure. Well, I’ve always heard old men get lonely out on the range.