Film Review: 'True Grit'

Paramount Pictures
Jeff Bridges grudgingly helps Hailee Steinfeld find the man who killed her father.

Coen brothers remake of the girl-power Western has great performances, no humor.

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 its center.

A story of pursuit and sought-after justice that places in stark relief the main characters’ strengths and failings, this wintry 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 time-tested good guy/bad guy Western format, should translate into decent midrange business. But though the material possesses an intrinsic across-the-board appeal, the Coens concentrate on its harshness to the extent that families likely will shy away.

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 during the 1870s, the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ wonderful novel exuded amiable relaxed, G-rated charm under the direction of Western vet 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 (Matt Damon) to play the Texas Ranger who uncomfortably accompanies Rooster (Jeff Bridges) and little Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) into a land filled with fugitive outlaws and no-accounts. These represent major pluses for the new film as screen newcomer Steinfeld makes an excellent Mattie and Damon, from 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, a critical and commercial hit when published in 1968, the crackling, colloquial, often laugh-out-loud dialogue seemed almost ready-made for any screenwriter to more or less lift intact. Joel and Ethan Coen retained some of Portis’ wordsmithing but have oddly decided to drain most of the comedy. 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.

But the focus here is resolutely on 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 (Josh Brolin), 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 played by Dakin Matthews), leaving no doubt that she’ll be more than able to hold her own with the imposing Rooster, the condescending LaBoeuf (Damon) and even Chaney when she finally confronts him.

Contrasting with the original’s spectacular summer and early-autumn mountain backdrops, 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 awhile, LaBoeuf who takes leave after having proved 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 a scruffy gang that temporarily includes Chaney. Rooster’s one-man battle charge against four adversaries in a meadow is reproduced in nearly identical fashion to the original film, though the Coens end their telling on a wistful note by incorporating the book’s coda set in 1903, a quarter-century after the main action.

Although mostly divested of what, in the book, is her rigorously Christian outlook, Mattie is otherwise everything she’s meant to be in Steinfeld’s 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. Clear-eyed, Steinfeld conveys the character’s refusal to be deterred, without a trace of gaminlike coyness or girlish cuteness.

Bearded, bellied and eyepatched, 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 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.

Release date: Wednesday, Dec. 22 (Paramount)
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews
Writer-directors: 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
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes