Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The Coen Brothers new film True Grit is an enormously entertaining and well-paced Western featuring strong performances, crisp writing, expertly sustained direction, and gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins. Still, it very well may disappoint Coen fans expecting some sort of foray into eccentricity, such as the freewheeling quirkiness of The Big Lebowski or the stylized, macabre violence of Fargo. Additionally, anyone looking for a deeper inquiry into the complex ambiguities of morality found in the searing No Country For Old Men may also be let down by how matter of fact True Grit turns out to be. But this would ultimately be missing the point, as the Coens are not out to transcend the genre here, but more interestingly, they seek to pay homage to conventions while still maintaining the their own very specific style of filmmaking.
True Grit remains remarkably faithful to the 1969 original film starring John Wayne (a role that earned him an Oscar), but it sticks even closer to the 1968 Charles Portis novel upon which both films are based. The story, detailing the plight of 14-year old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, excellent), and her determined search for the man that killed her father, enables the Coens to riff on the archetypal motifs found in all good Westerns. There is the washed up one-eyed legend Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, taking on the John Wayne role), who helps the girl against his better judgment, the aloof but good-hearted Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who butts heads with Cogburn, and the brutish Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the simple-minded murderer of Mattie’s father.
Bridges plays Cogburn like an amalgamation of John Wayne and the Dude from The Big Lebowski, often slurring his speech in indescribable fragments. It is a sly performance; more homage than imitation, and it is to Bridge’s credit that we forget all about Wayne’s iconic interpretation, which is no small feat. Steinfeld inhabits the part of Mattie with an ease and grace that belies her age; she is the glue that holds the narrative together, and if her performance faltered then the entire picture would fall apart. But from the opening scenes, including a bravado sequence involving her negotiating the selling back of her ponies to Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), Steinfeld nails the affected speech patterns and makes it clear that the movie will really be about her rather than Cogburn. Damon has fun with his role as the bumbling LaBoeuf; his comic timing is superb and his reaction shots provide the film with its biggest laughs. Brolin has a small part but manages to provide a level of both menace and uncertainty as Chaney, and Barry pepper also shows up late in the proceedings to create a truly memorable villain with limited screen time.
Ultimately, True Grit doesn’t reach the level of a masterpiece; it is too precise and balanced to be completely haunting or emotionally impactful. The Coens don’t take many risks here, which will either be lauded as brilliant given the material or seen as a weakness of striving to honor the source too religiously. While it’s true that the film fails to transcend the Western genre, it doesn’t really matter since its clear that the Coens are not interested in reinventing the wheel. Strong performances, gorgeous widescreen imagery, and nimble writing make this a must-see for both fans of the Western (of which this is one of the best in recent years) and the average filmgoer interested in an entertaining and suspenseful time at the movies.