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The one-eyed fat man is back, but working in a very different key, in the Coen Brothers’ take on True Grit, a melancholy, atmospheric Western with a 14-year-old girl at the center of it. A story of pursuit and sought-after justice that places in stark relief the main characters’ strengths and failings, this wintery work is well played and superbly crafted but hits largely familiar notes, giving it a one-dimensional feel without much dramatic or emotional resonance. The solid cast, involving story and intrinsic appeal of the good guy-bad guy Western format should translate into decent mid-range business, with the film’s ultimate box office fate heavily dependent upon how it plays for families and young audiences.
Famous mostly for John Wayne‘s enjoyably hammy Oscar-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn, a growling, boozing, trigger-happy deputy marshal who grudgingly helps a young lady track down her father’s killer in Indian country in the 1870s, the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis‘ wonderful novel exuded amiable relaxed charm under the direction of veteran Western director Henry Hathaway.
Two obvious fixes the Coens tended to at once were restoring the proper age of the female lead (Kim Darby was 20 when the first film was shot) and casting a strong actor to play the Texas Ranger who uncomfortably accompanies Rooster and little Mattie Ross into a land filled with fugitive outlaws and no-accounts. These represent major plusses for the new film, as screen newcomer Hailee Steinfeld makes an excellent Mattie and Matt Damon, from the moment of his laconic boots-on-a-porch rail entrance designed to recall Henry Fonda in “My Darling Clementine,” puts any thoughts of Glen Campbell immediately to rest.
Startlingly, however, what the Coens have given up is humor. To readers of Portis’ novel, which was a critical and commercial hit when published in 1968, the crackling, colloquial, often laugh-out-loud hilarious dialogue seemed almost ready-made for any screenwriter to more or less lift it intact. Marguerite Roberts put some perky, folksy spin on it four decades ago. Joel and Ethan Coen, while retaining some of Portis’ wordsmithing, have oddly decided to drain most of the comedy from inherently funny lines and situations. Considerable character color is lost in the process, particularly where Rooster is concerned; sure, Wayne did a fair share of broad mugging in his day, but that didn’t mean Bridges and the others had to steer clear of the sort of comic timing that would only have enriched the material and made it more entertaining this time around.
But the focus here is resolutely upon Mattie, a remarkably poised, self-confident and, it must be said, entirely humorless girl whose every move and decision is driven by her aim of tracking down Tom Chaney, the man who shot her father. For the audience, Mattie proves her mettle at the outset by completely having her way in negotiations with an experienced horse trader (fantastically well played by Dakin Matthews), thereby leaving no doubt that she’ll be more than able to hold her own with the imposing Rooster (whom she first confronts while he’s occupied in an outhouse), the condescending LaBoeuf (Damon) and even Chaney (Josh Brolin) when she finally confronts him.
Contrasting with the original’s spectacular summer and early autumn Colorado mountain backdrops (the early town scenes were shot in Ridgeway, near Telluride), this time the journey moves from a bleached, dusty community into assorted wild stretches that eventually become inundated by the first snowy dustings of winter. At first shunned by her two companions, who stand to collect rewards if they bring Chaney to justice, Mattie simply won’t go away. After a while, it’s LaBoeuf who takes his leave after having proving oversensitive to Rooster’s bluster.
It doesn’t take long for Rooster to track down the baddies’ lairs, first at a cabin where some nasty mayhem ensues, then around a mountainside where the snaggletoothed Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) presides over scruffy gang that temporarily includes Chaney. Rooster’s one-man battle charge against four adversaries in a meadow is reproduced in almost identical fashion to the original film, although the Coens end their telling on a wistful note by reincorporating the book’s coda set in 1903, a quarter-century after the main action.
Although mostly divested of what, in the book, was her rigorously Christian outlook, Mattie is otherwise everything she’s meant to be in Steinfeld’s exceedingly accomplished performance. “True grit” may be what she’s looking for in the man she selects to track down Chaney, but Mattie’s the one who has it in spades: she means—and does–what she says, and there’s not a patronizing man in the Old West who doesn’t learn the cost of misjudging her. Dark haired and clear-eyed, Steinfeld convincingly conveys the character’s refusal to be deterred, without a trace of gamine-like coyness or girlish cuteness. Perhaps Frances McDormand’s performance in “Fargo” represented an implicit model.
Bearded, bellied and wearing his black eyepatch over his right eye (Wayne covered his left), Bridges eats and grumbles some of his dialogue and seems to be suppressing his sense of fun in a relatively realistic portrayal of man with a dicey past who has no problem giving flight to whatever demons might momentarily come to visit. His is an engaging but not dominant turn.
Damon’s LaBoeuf, on the other hand, has far too thin a skin to be comfortable around the likes of Rooster, and the actor skillfully reveals the insecurities of a man who needs to back up his badge with bravado. Brolin’s Chaney doesn’t turn up until 80 minutes in and, when he does, the actor reminds forcibly of Robert Ryan‘s memorable villain in Anthony Mann‘s great “The Naked Spur.”
As always with the Coens, the craft aspects are outstanding, led by Roger Deakins‘ superior cinematography, Jess Gonchor‘s detailed production design, Mary Zophres‘ textured costume designs and Carter Burwell‘s often source-derived score.
Opens: Wednesday, Dec. 22 (Paramount)
Production: DreamWorks, Skydance, Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Prods.Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Paul Rae, Domhnall Gleeson, Elizabeth Marvel
Directors-screenwriters: Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive Producers: Steven Spielberg, Robert Graf, David Ellison, Paul Schwake, Megan Ellison
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Editor: Roderick Jaynes
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Music: Carter Burwell
Rating: PG-13, 110 minutes
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