True Grit hits theaters this week boasting an impressive pedigree: The combination of directors Joel and Ethan Coen (their stature further elevated by the Oscar-certified, and genuinely terrific, No Country for Old Men), star Jeff Bridges (Oscar-certified himself for the more sketchy Crazy Heart and reunited with the crafters of his most beloved role, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski), ready-made material (Charles Portis' popular 1968 novel, which quickly became the more popular 1969 film), and an Oscar-friendly Christmas week release all combine to present True Grit as some kind of major movie event.
Well, don't quite believe the packaging. The work in question, though often agreeable enough, is probably more than a little closer in quality and heft to the Coens' last "remake," 2004's generally maligned The Ladykillers, than it is to their closest previous foray into the Western genre, the aforementioned No Country for Old Men.
Regardless of the presence of Bridges and the distortions of Oscar marketing campaigns, the lead here is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who more than ably plays protagonist Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old looking to hire someone to help her hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the cowardly outlaw who has murdered her father.
Given a list of available U.S. marshals to contact, Mattie chooses the "mean" one over the more professional options and tracks down the aging, irascible Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a sort of proto-Dirty Harry who has a history of shooting first and asking questions later in pursuit of the criminal element. But this attitude is just the kind of "true grit" the calm, precocious, vengeance-seeking girl is pursuing.
Mattie's steely resolve is established in a series of comic bartering scenes, first with the town (Fort Smith, Arkansas; Memphis makes a brief appearance later) undertaker, then with a sniveling local merchant, and finally with Cogburn, whom she first confronts while he's locked away in an outhouse.
Bridges is plenty entertaining as the craggy Cogburn but doesn't bring quite the same ease to the performance as original "Rooster," John Wayne, who had been riffing on his established persona for about 20 years by that point. But this Cogburn does get points for being a less self-regarding performance and characterization, one that allows some darker aspects of his personality to creep in.
Bridges' face here is like a sculpture made of leather, with all information imparted by his one darting, slithering eye and phlegmy drunkard's drawl. Bridges' performance evokes Wayne less than it does some combination of Kris Kristofferson and W.C. Fields. And he finds a nice foil in Matt Damon — unlike Bridges and Brolin, a Coen newcomer — who disappears pleasingly into his role as preening Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, a category of lawman Cogburn doesn't think much of.
But despite all this fine talent in fine form, something is amiss with True Grit. A tip-off comes at the very beginning, when the combination of a lilting, "old-timey" piano refrain and some voiceover narration makes you think you're about to see Ken Burns' True Grit. And Carter Burwell's overbearingly elegiac score never lets up. Often, the Coens seem to be using the music to try to provoke emotional responses the storytelling doesn't earn.
True Grit's detachment would be curious if it weren't such a common Coen trait. And the film's tone is all over the place. The opening narration, carrying heavy, biblical undertones, is portentous, and the Coens spike the film with bits of gruesome, gratuitous violence (a man's fingers chopped off on-screen) and gallows humor. But elsewhere, their True Grit has the light, leisurely feel of a live-action Disney film from the '70s. The Coens are never quite able to wrangle these clashing tones into something coherent.
What they seem most interested in is the comedy that comes from bad teeth and unkempt facial hair and the spouting of ornate dialogue, frequent Coen attractions that go down easier in this period setting than in some of their other films. And much of True Grit's dialogue is quite funny. (Representative sample: Mattie reacting, with little sympathy, to LaBoeuf's lengthy pursuit of Chaney — "I'm sorry you have been eluded the winterlong by a halfwit.")
After departing, over the past few years, from their intensely referential style, the Coens are back to making movies about other movies here. And in addition to what they take from whatever's their true source material (be it Portis' book or director Henry Hathaway's earlier film), there are nods to other Westerns: A shot looking out a darkened doorway might replicate something similar from 1969's True Grit but can't help but evoke John Ford's better Wayne vehicle, The Searchers. And when Damon is introduced sitting back, his boots propped on a porch rail, it's an homage to an earlier upright lawman, Henry Fonda's Wyatt Earp in Ford's My Darling Clementine.
These genre touches are fine, but the Coens have never been as astute at picking through pop culture's back pages as they or their legion of fans seem to think. This is what made last year's daring, revealing, under-recognized A Serious Man (their best film, I'd argue) such a breakthrough: It was the first Coen movie connected to and influenced by real life. Coming after a movie as bold and personal as A Serious Man, True Grit feels like a retreat — an only partly satisfying order of cinematic comfort food.
Opening Wednesday, December 22nd