True Grit (review)

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Mild Frontier

It slips by almost unnoticed. Mattie Ross, relating her own tale of her adventures with U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, mentions her sister twice… and calls her by two different names. First she’s Victoria, then she’s Violet. It’s the kind of mistake that often occurs when someone is spinning an elaborate yarn and yet fails to remember all the niggling details from telling to telling. I thought, Aha: this is how the Coen Brothers will put their unique spin on the previously cinematized tale of vengeance and unexpected friendship between the teenage girl out for revenge and/or justice upon her father’s murderer, and the man she hires to actually exact that retribution. True Grit — the 1968 novel [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] as well as this new adaptation, a more faithful one than the 1969 film — is, after all, told from the perspective of a much older Mattie, reflecting back on these times. Is it possible that Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man, Burn After Reading), sharing screenwriting and directing duties, have found a chink in Charles Portis’s book, a way to inject their own distinctive angle into a familiar genre? Could their True Grit be a tall tale in the vein of their O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I was startled to discover that there is no such indication to be found, not even by squinting really really hard, that this True Grit should not be taken at face value, that we are dealing with an intriguingly unreliable narrator. And yet it’s hard to imagine how such a flat-out gaffe could occur in a film by the Coens, who are so deeply attentive to detail — it may be the one thing that makes their films such a joy to watch. I hate to think this Victoria/Violet thing is simply inadvertent, accident error… but it sure looks as if it is.

That sense, that there’s something great just beyond the grasp of the Coens here, something that they may not even be aware of, hangs over this elegant yet somehow vaguely unfinished film. The production is very graceful, in a down-to-earth, hardbitten sort of way; the aura of it is startlingly authentic, as far I can tell, never having experienced the actual Old West (I love how the characters speak in an old-fashioned rhythm, and with fewer contractions — no one would mistake them for 21st-century speakers, a distinction that not all historical films bother themselves with); the performances are extraordinarily fine, and worthy of all praise that will be heaped upon them. I just don’t know what the purpose of the film is, nor why the Coens felt compelled to remake it, and I was never emotionally engaged by it, which would seem to be a demand of a film that is all about emotion-fueled action. And I’m more than a smidge disturbed that the moral, if there is one at all, appears to be: “Revenge comes with a high price, but it’s worth paying.”

There are powerful pleasures to be found here, for sure. Hailee Steinfeld, making her impressive feature debut, is as sardonic and quick as the movie itself, and burns with a sly, dry wit that belies her character’s age — Mattie is 14, but has been forced by her father’s death and her mother’s ineffectualness (or so she tells us) to grow up fast. She is “saucy,” one character deems her, not necessarily in an approving way, though another character, a villain, seems to nod with endorsement when he notes that she does “not varnish in [her] opinion.” She’s not quite Lisbeth Salander, but kudos to the Coens for not watering her down by removing the focus of the story from her… and kudos to Steinfeld for not letting herself get bowled over by Jeff Bridges as Cogburn, whom she hires to find her father’s killer and with whom she insists on tagging along on the job. Bridges (Tron: Legacy, The Men Who Stare at Goats) manages to somehow be both hulking and vulnerable as the drunkard, trigger-happy lawman — he’s the “meanest” marshal, says the sheriff of the town where Mattie’s father was killed, when she asks for bounty-hunter recommendations — but never in any tediously sentimental way that suggests that little girls are the inevitable way to melt a scoundrel’s cold heart. Matt Damon (Hereafter, Green Zone), as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, hunting the same killer for yet another murder, is more wry, more purely enjoyable a screen presence than he’s ever been, which isn’t to impugn his earlier work: he just seems more relaxed here than ever before… not that I would ever have thought he hadn’t been prior to this. And Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), when he finally shows up as the killer Tom Chaney in the final 30 minutes of the film, is more unexpectedly creepy than he’s been set up to be, and makes the smallness of Chaney’s violence and cowardice shockingly ordinary.

There’s a lot to respect about True Grit, and much to admire. I just can’t honestly say that I actively enjoyed most of it. Apart from one moment, when Cogburn and Mattie encounter a medicine man so covered up in a bearskin that it almost appears a bear is riding a horse — a moment the Coens play with a beautiful, if brief surreality — there’s very little unexpected about this competent and yet somehow uninspired film. And that’s a shame. I expected more from Joel and Ethan Coen. Much more.

Watch True Grit online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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