True Grit version 2.0 opens on a dead body, with snow drizzling and a quote from the Old Testament dangling, "The wicked flee when none pursueth." It's immediately clear that this film is more than just a remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western of the same name. This time around directors Joel and Ethan Coen were reverent to Charles Portis' novel, telling the story from the young girl's perspective. To do so, they re-teamed with No Country for Old Men producer Scott Rudin. The narrative centers on young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who enlists the services of "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her capture her father's killer. Accompanied by Texas Ranger Le Beouf (Matt Damon), the unlikely trio ventures forth hoping to either bring her father's murderer to justice or kill him, whichever comes first.
Although True Grit does not leave the lasting impression of Fargo, it delivers on a grand scale. The Coens' undeniable gift for words shines throughout. The Elizabethan theater chatter set forth here is totally reminiscent of HBO's Deadwood.
Casting Bridges in the Rooster Cogburn role was another stroke of Coen genius. Move over Duke, the Dude is taking over. Bridges is an amazing treat to watch as the cantankerous and drunken one-eyed windbag. Dropping octaves and basically growling the whole movie, Bridges tops every performance of his to date. Josh Brolin is hilarious as a kind of blundering murderous outlaw. Damon's LaBoeuf (humorously pronounced "luh-beef") is probably the most unconvincing. That might be the Coens' take on the stiff semi-good guy/hero role, or the curse of Glen Campbell who played the role in the original film. Newcomer Steinfeld is a force to be reckoned with, rattling off her dialogue while holding her own with these two modern heavyweights. (It's clear why the Coens picked her out of the 15,000 others who submitted audition tapes.)
One bone of contention: a glaring directorial "mistake" the likes of which I've never seen before in "Coen Country." It plays out onscreen like this: Mattie swims across a river on her horse, drenching herself in the process. Yet she arrives on the other side bone dry.
I had to wonder if this was a conscious decision by these consummate perfectionists to emulate the sloppiness found in the older films of the genre, or are they messing with us in a new way here?
I'd rank True Grit somewhere with films like The Assassination of Jesse James, Dead Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it would also make a great double bill with an earlier Bridges' western, 1972's Bad Company. Seen together, Cogburn could easily be Bridge's character Jake Rumsey "all growed up."
With executive producer Steven Spielberg onboard and a safe bet Holiday release, Grit plays out happy and nice. But in my mind, it falls short of the standard that the Coen brothers have set for themselves and our expectations. Still, Joel and Ethan deliver some of their iconic weirdness (keep an eye out for the guy in the bear skin suit). And despite a PG-13 rating, they include some decent blood splattering. Everything looks great: the cinematography is deep-toned, the landscape beautiful, the characters colorful. In the end, however, the films lacks the fire that it promises at the outset; maybe that's the essence of the novel. The result is a good old-fashioned Western - just not a great one.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon,
Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld
Written and directed By Joel and Ethan Coen