The Coen Brothers want to have their cake and eat it, too. They apparently intend some of their adaptation of True Grit to play believably, and some of it to reflect the ironic distance for which they’re so well known. That’s a tough two-step to pull off, and they almost get away with it.
Are we meant to find precocious, 14-year-old Mattie Ross a credible character or a fanciful one? She has a vocabulary that would impress a college professor, including knowledge of legal terms in Latin, and a horse-trading savvy that almost brings a world-weary merchant to his knees, in the film’s funniest scene. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld turns in a terrific performance as the indomitable girl who won’t rest until her father’s death is avenged.
Jeff Bridges is rough and rowdy marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn, and manages to put his own—
—stamp on the role made famous in 1969 by John Wayne. It’s no surprise that he knows how to bring a wide palette of colors to this character, and he seems to be having a good time doing it. The same can be said of Matt Damon as the cocky Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, an amusing part he plays with assurance.
True Grit is an entertaining movie, not the least because it looks so great. Roger Deakins, who has done consistently fine work for the Coens, tops himself here, fashioning scenes that have weight and resonance. A shootout that takes place at night, seen from the point of view of two characters perched on a hill overlooking the action, has no precedent I’m aware of in the entire history of Westerns. It’s a knockout, because of the way it’s staged, shot, and illuminated. Deakins isn’t a showoff: his images aren’t meant to call attention to themselves; their purpose is to serve the story in the best possible way, and they do. One can’t help but marvel at the results.
So why didn’t I feel more emotionally connected to this beautifully-crafted, well-acted film?
The Coens’ films—good, great, and odd, by turns—are not known for their warmth. This is surely why they were attracted to Charles Portis’ picaresque novel, which is narrated by a grownup Mattie Ross. Her voice in the book has been compared to Huckleberry Finn, telling his immortal story with a mixture of innocence and irony.
If they have been more faithful to Portis than the 1969 film, which was directed by Henry Hathaway and written by Marguerite Roberts, they have also sacrificed some of the “heart” those Hollywood studio veterans knew how to inject into their work.
The climactic scene of the new True Grit ought to be moving, but it isn’t; the Coens wouldn’t want to be accused of sentimentality.
I enjoyed watching their version of True Grit, but I wish I had felt more when it came to a close.