There are many words that would aptly describe Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, True Grit, but the one that seems most appropriate is indulgent. This is the third version of Mattie Ross’s story — Charles Portis’s novel was first published in 1968, and the film version starring John Wayne (in an Oscar-winning role) followed a year later. For an audience who missed both originals, True Grit is the tale of the feisty young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), only 14 years old in 1880, but determined to avenge the death of her father. Kids grew up faster back then.
Mattie hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), quick to shoot and even quicker to do shots, to hunt down the killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, barely glimpsed). Since the girl is filled with more moxie than she knows what to do with, she insists on accompanying Rooster in his quest, partly because she doesn’t trust that he won’t get lost in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. While on the trail of Chaney, the two cross paths with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), also in pursuit of the man for a different killing. The three share a common goal, yet all want a different outcome, so a tenuous alliance is formed that threatens to dissolve at any minute.
The Coen brothers directly adapted Portis’s novel, a solid western with dusty roads, plenty of guns, and horses galore. The boys capture the era’s slower way of life through the film’s almost lackadaisical beginning, meandering through Mattie’s arrival in the ”big” city from her family’s rural home, which is entertaining as an introduction to her fiery spirit and seemingly fearless approach to life. Witnessing a hanging, telling tall tales to strangers, bedding down in the same room as corpses, swindling businessmen, there’s no end to Mattie’s ability to get what she wants. But it’s not until the interplay between Mattie and the slovenly Rooster begins that the film picks up the pace from trot to canter.
There’s no question that the most interesting part of True Grit is watching Bridges and Damon opposite newcomer Steinfeld. Bridges, hot off his Oscar last year for playing a drunken country singer in Crazy Heart, seems to be relishing the role of Rooster. Now that an Oscar sits on his shelf, he seems freed to be playful, even in a role that calls for heroic gravitas at times. As the often-sloshed marshal, Bridges mumbles his lines to the point of unintelligibility. With one eye hidden behind a patch, Bridges works the head tilt and glare a little too often, but gives a performance that is strong in its lack of inhibitions.
Damon is fine as the stoic LaBoeuf. While the character supplies a balance to Rooster’s antics, his serious nature and Texan pride becomes fodder for Rooster’s humor. Damon rides the line well, playing both the foil and the straight man. He doesn’t always transform the part into something wholly believable, but he manages to lose some of the pretty boy aura by the end.
Most of the buzz around True Grit is earned by Steinfeld, and rightfully so. Her performance as the stubborn Mattie is excellent. Initially it appears that Steinfeld is just doing a good job in a role that allows an actor to shine, but then the little nuances start to appear, and it’s clear she’s bringing a lot to the table. The slight falter in Mattie’s bravado as she walks past the dead bodies to sleep for the night is just one clue that Steinfeld, like Mattie, isn’t one to underestimate. She brings heart to the movie, which pays off in multiple ways before the story’s end.
So what makes the film feel indulgent if the acting is so strong? It’s that there doesn’t appear to be any true grit to the film. The Coen brothers bring plenty of blood, violence, stunning landscapes, and striking tableaus, but none of it is extraordinary. It’s all been seen before, sometimes from them. In fact, the scenes that are reminiscent of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men only reinforce how much their prior picture was a modern-day western, and a better one at that. The confines of the western genre seem to be a restraint on the pair, and they don’t meet the bar they’ve set with their previous projects.
True Grit feels like a combination of No Country and its biggest Oscar competition that year, There Will Be Blood. In this case, the sum of the two doesn’t exceed the originals. Maybe if it had been called simply Grit, our expectations would be lower. And met.