Opening with a Bible quote like that might seem pretentious, but knowing Ethan and Joel Coen, you can tell that they’re being facetious. Or are they? To be honest, I’m not quite sure… Little about this film seems to fit with what I usually expect from the brothers. Oh, it’s pretty much as skillfully crafted as anything they’ve ever made and, here and there, you can see some of their razor-sharp wit cut through, but not nearly as often as usual. This is an uncharacteristically stodgy picture for them, as if, for the first time, they started to believe their own hype and figured that, post-“No Country for Old Men”, they might as well try to make another Oscar-ready film…
It’s in the opening voice-over narration from the adult Mattie Ross, who looks back on the days a quarter century prior when, at age 14, she rode along with the notorious U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges); in the oddly sentimental Carter Burwell score; in the overly slow pace and solemn tone; and in the epilogue, which is clearly striving for significance and emotion the film hasn’t earned. Usually, the Coen only seem interested in following their whimsy, and the result is almost always either funny, thrilling, thought-provoking or all of the above. Not this time.
It’s a shame because I was totally ready to fall in love with this re-adaptation of the Charles Portis novel which, back in 1969, inspired the Henry Hathaway film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar. I’m a big fan of Westerns and, early into this new version of “True Grit”, I was taken by the look and feel of Fort Smith, Arkansas, by all the men wandering around with cowboy hats on their heads and all kinds of facial hair on their faces, by the glimpses of the vast surrounding landscapes… This was gonna be awesome!
But then, as little Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) went around town looking to hire a man to help her find and bring to justice her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), eventually settling on the aforementioned Rooster Cogburn but having a hard time convincing him to accept her offer, then having Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) involve himself in the matter, I started growing impatient. The Coen seem to be in love with the flowery, ornate language of this piece, but the endless, often pointless-seeming chatter eventually got on my nerves. Half an hour into the movie, the characters still hadn’t left Fort Smith to go after Chaney and, even once they embarked on their journey, they kept on arguing between each other, repeatedly stalling the progression of their mission and that of the movie itself.
In theory, I guess I could appreciate the idea of a Western where most of the gunfights are replaced by long sterile arguments, as if the characters were old ladies having tea instead of hardened men of the law chasing a murderer. Yet watching “True Grit”, I found this neither clever or amusing, just dull and frustrating. I have to point out that none of the characters made much of an impression on me, even though they’re all played by capable actors. I was particularly disappointed by Jeff Bridges’ turn as the one-eyed, gravelly-voiced Cogburn, an old drunken asshole who’s mumbling, rambling and, dare I say it, rather boring. As for Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been hailed as the revelation of the film by some, she did little for me. She’s good enough, but her character is a bit one-note; precocious, assertive, mature beyond her years, Mattie is admirably driven, but I would have liked to see more vulnerability in her, some sense that she realized she might be in way over her head.
Eventually, “True Grit” is enlivened by some intense bursts of violence and the climax is involving enough, but it’s ultimately too little, too late. Moment to moment, the film is just not that rewarding, and on the whole, it doesn’t add up to much. Roger Deakins‘s gorgeous cinematography notwithstanding, the Coen’s latest is pretty much a letdown all around.