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film review—TRUE GRIT

by Leonard Maltin
December 22, 2010 5:15 AM
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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.

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  • Moe Wadle | February 2, 2013 7:28 PMReply

    This rendition of the film was nominated for 10, that is ten, Academy Awards. While it did not take any Oscars home...think what an accomplishment that is...being nominated for that many. I say this because I thought it was a very, very excellent film and one I will watch repeatedly over the years, partly because I collect western movies. Both renditions have good things about them but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty I like this one better than the Wayne one. And please, always remember...The Coens were NOT producing a re-make of the Wayne film...they were making a film from the book. I think that is important to remember.

  • john levy | October 22, 2011 7:14 AMReply

    no comparison john waynes version is way better. you cant recreate rooster cogburn thats john waynes role. i love jeff bridges too and looked forward too seeing this movie but it fails in comparison to its original

  • linda | July 18, 2011 6:57 AMReply

    I just rented this movie last night and I liked it but afterwards thought I wasn't invested emotionally in the characters. I wasn't moved. I''m glad to read that this critic and others felt the same way. I would like to rent the John Wayne version and compare. It's been decades since I've seen it but remember being more concerned about the characters and the outcome.

  • Mario Peixoto Alves | April 4, 2011 8:32 AMReply

    Both the first and the second (TRUE GRIT) are excellent movies and narrated in different ways, then it is difficult to make comparisons. John Wayne's film has more humor and movement, while the second is more serious and sad and slow down the narrative. But a scene from the first True Grit that will be in the history of movies is John Wayne with a Winchester rifle in his right hand and a revolver colt navy on the left hand, his mouth with the reins and guiding the horse with his knees to shoot down the badies, I doubt any other actor can repeat that scene.

  • Tony Runfalo | January 21, 2011 7:48 AMReply

    I left the theater with an extremely strong urge to see again the original 1969 version which I did the next day. No comparison. The 1969 film is beautiful and has the main ingredient that makes a film a classic: great emotion. The Coen version is extremely well made but that is all it is, an extremely well crafted film but with no heart. The best thing about the film is that it made me yearn for the original which I now own in a beautiful Blue-Ray edition....Thank you, Coens.

  • Matthew | January 2, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    The Coen Brothers know how to make a movie with style, and this one looks great, but Mr. Maltin is right. This movie lacks heart. The Coen Bros prefer to keep you at a distance with bizarre, self-indulgent touches like the man in the bear costume and the character who makes animal noises. The latter was downright embarrassing at times as it interrupted the climactic buildup. Still, it does entertain most of the way.

  • Brett | January 1, 2011 8:52 AMReply

    I always respect Leonard Maltin's judgment as a critic. He's an individual thinker. But he is dead wrong about this film and its ending. The ending hit just the right note. I wouldn't have had it any other way. Again, Maltin is a preeminent authority on film, but here he is just dead wrong.

  • JipLee | December 28, 2010 2:37 AMReply

    I loved this movie. To me Jeff Bridges WAS Rooster Cogburn, and Mattie Ross was the toughest frontier girl we've seen. I loved the humor, the language and inflection, the story. As far as emotion, I felt that Rooster's driving that poor horse to death and running himself into the ground to save her was so expressive--what else needed to be said. And, I loved Matt Damon. END OF STORY!!

  • Kirk E. | December 28, 2010 12:32 AMReply

    I thought it was great, easily one of the Top 5 of the year, and one of the best Westerns in the last 25 years.

    I also think Barry Pepper deserves a shout-out for his compelling few minutes of screen time.

    As far as the Cohen's lack of sentimentality, I don't think they are scared of it. They pulled it off well in "O Brother." But like Fargo and No Country, they want to push the audience to the edge of the unbelievable, to lure them with the hope of the sentimental, only to snap them back to true life's harsh and ordinary reality.

  • Sammie | December 27, 2010 1:13 AMReply

    True Grit. hmm, I have watched both, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn drove the first True Grit. The second True Grit is purely driven by Mattie Ross. Two different movies and not comparable. Both John Wayne and Jeff Bridges are to be commended for their performances. Each actor handled the role perfectly for their written screen plays.

    Like Maltin, I too found something missing. What's not missing is two bumbling actors named Kim Darby and Glen Campbell. This movie is one good film, but not the best film I've seen this year. It is right at the top of my list.

    I wish I could have seen more of Josh Brolin's bad boy, and that of Pepper.

  • Scott Nelson | December 26, 2010 9:08 AMReply

    It should be "The Coens want to have their cake and eat it too". Didn't Leonard see Micki & Maude?

  • adam | December 26, 2010 5:25 AMReply

    The first paragraph in this review is pure gold.

  • Jason | December 25, 2010 6:48 AMReply

    I agree that this film was very good but was definitely missing something...which is something I've noticed about a lot of the Coen Brothers' films. It's almost like they're afraid to be taken too seriously with their more sentimental moments (that or they just don't know how to play these scenes out). Good film, not a great one.

  • Harry | December 24, 2010 12:34 AMReply

    Rocky top,

    The long dash is just there to show there is more to the article, same as if an elipses were used. Malton or his editor must have to put those in.

    Great review by the way! I love the Coens and can't wait to check this film out!

  • kenneth kahn | December 23, 2010 11:21 AMReply

    Has anyone else noticed that *every* post on this blog has at least one line that is split like this

    Jeff Bridges is rough and rowdy marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn, and manages to put his own—

    —stamp on the role

    Is it my browser or the blog software?

  • rocky top | December 23, 2010 9:39 AMReply

    Once again I agree with Leonard Maltin - Just could not connect as I did in the original.

  • JB Early | December 22, 2010 11:19 AMReply

    The Coen's TRUE GRIT is still likely better in every way than 90% of the flicks out this year. I'd rather watch a flawed movie, which comes from a quality source(s) than posers with a big budget fleecing the sheep with quotidian trash, their only goal being money.

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