True Grit is the new film from the Coen Brothers, not a remake of the 1969 classic starring John Wayne as “Rooster” Cogburn, but a new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. A new Coen film is always of interest, but does their version of True Grit cut the mustard?
The film follows 14-year old Mattie Ross (an impressive feature film debut from Hailee Steinfield), who sets out to avenge the death of her father at the hands of hired man Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She enlists the help of the aging and mostly drunken Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a US Marshall who has, as she sees it, ‘true grit.’ Accompanying them is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also in search of Chaney.
True Grit is not really a surprising film for the Coens to have made. After all, they have done straight thrillers before, most recently with No Country For Old Men, and most of their films are in fact period films set in the past. However, whilst No Country For Old Men managed to be an intensely affective thriller, its real achievement was its outlook on life, which lent the film a depth and a resonance that was there if you wanted to see it, and gone if you just wanted thrills. The main problem with True Grit is that it has very little depth and no resonance.
Excitement it does have, with plenty of nasty characters and several bloody shoot-outs. It is full of good performances that give real dramatic weight to the outlandish characters. The central relationship between Mattie and Cogburn is well handled, as is Damon’s secondary role. The Western landscapes are fantastically well shot and the period is skilfully imbued with a sense of eerie danger and reckless cruelty. However, as a whole, the film doesn’t hold together. Many scenes feel like comical interludes from other films and many more serious sequences are handled as if they have much more import than they really do. The writer-directors approach these scenes as if they are key to the film as a whole, but it always remains unclear exactly how. In the end, the film feels completely lackadaisical, almost as if the Coens made it up as they went along and only permitted one draft.
The characterisation of Tom Chaney is one of the film’s more obvious problems and is an indicator of what is wrong with the whole film. Absent for most of the film, his entrance is long anticipated but ultimately rather forced. He is neither the chief villain in the film nor is he a concrete character. He appears neither evil and pitiable, a non-character who is presented in an unfocussed and poorly judged light. The lasting impression is that he, like the film, doesn’t make any sense.
True Grit goes for dark and, for the most part, achieves it. But the typical Coen humour seems forced, clichéd and not very funny. Many of the scenes set a palpably sinister and brooding tone, but nothing is ever made of it. It feels like the Coens did a lot of research to get a powerful level of authenticity into the film but then, when the time came to write the script, opted to prioritise making good use of the research than writing a coherent story.
To a big fan of the Coen’s, this film was something of a disappointment. Perhaps the problem lay in the tackling of a time that they knew little about, or maybe it is evidence that Hollywood just can’t figure out exactly how to make a proper old-fashioned Western anymore. As good as the trio of lead characters are, True Grit feels like a film that was considered much too highly by the talented but momentarily lost duo. A step down from A Serious Man, maybe the film would have been better if they had taken a little more time in pre-production.