The Coen Brothers are notorious for the nasty nihilism of their worldview – if that’s not too grand a term – and so it’s somewhat surprising that “True Grit,” their latest film, is relatively straightforward. It’s a good, solid western and, coming from anybody else, that might be enough. Coming from the Coens, it leaves a slight pall of disappointment in the air.
What’s missing is the distinctiveness that makes the Coens' movies, both the great ones (“No Country for Old Men”) and the not-so-great (“The Hudsucker Proxy”), identifiably theirs alone. They’ve tamped down their scabrous black humor, and they’ve also toned down the comic possibilities in the marvelous 1968 Charles Portis novel upon which the film is based.
The original movie adaptation of “True Grit,” which came out in 1969, starred John Wayne in his Oscar-winning role as the besotted, one-eyed Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn. In the Coens' version, Jeff Bridges, who is thrice the actor Wayne was, plays Rooster. Unlike Wayne, he’s actually giving a performance and not a scenery-chewing star turn, although, given the film’s overall subdued tone, more munching might have been fun.
Still, it seems a bit churlish of me to complain that the Coens aren’t doing many of the same things, distinctive as they are, that I’ve often criticized them for in the past. Their craft and intelligence remain solid; only their imprimatur has changed.
Rooster is hired by the imperiously precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross (the wonderful newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to track down her father’s killer in Indian country in the 1870s. Accompanying them is a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is as straight-arrow as Rooster is screw-loose.
Like so many directors before them, the Coens are drawn to the classical western tradition of moviemaking. With the immense help of their cinematographer, Roger Deakins, they render the landscape in ways that set apart its inhabitants as actors in a vast folkloric enterprise. The people, who also include Josh Brolin as the killer and Barry Pepper as the scurvy gangleader Lucky Ned, all seem to have stepped out of a tall tale, although the Coens’ dampening effect keeps them all within bounds.
Bridges previously worked with the Coens on “The Big Lebowski,” which has achieved iconic status as the slacker movie par excellence. In “True Grit,” Bridges is a lot closer to his dissolute country singer Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart” than to Lebowski. He’s a mercenary and a boozer and it wouldn’t even be out of character for his signature black eyepatch to be a sham.
But Bridges lets us know that, deep down, Rooster wants the same thing Hallie does – justice. And in his own slobbola way, he’s just as tenacious as she is. That’s what she notices about him the first time she meets up with him (while he is, fittingly, in the outhouse). Without trying to jerk tears from us, the Coens make it clear that these two are soul mates.
Matt Damon is a tad bland, but at least, unlike Glen Campbell in the 1969 version, he isn’t required to sing for us. Steinfeld, however, is in many ways a perfect fit for the Coens. Her dead-on, no-nonsense line deliveries, with their contractionless, biblical cadences, are resolutely unsentimental. Mattie is a highly driven character but – and this is the key to Steinfeld’s gifts as an actress – she’s never boring. Her intensity has modulations.
Great westerns, almost by definition, have a largeness of spirit, a fullness in which the quotidian morphs inexorably into the mythic. “True Grit” falls short of all that, perhaps because largeness of spirit requires more emotional generosity than the Coens are likely capable of. But on its own conventional terms, the film succeeds – maybe not as a “Coen Brothers” movie, but as a tall tale well told. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images.)
More Monitor movie reviews