Coen brothers treat their ‘True Grit’ reassuringly, with no sharp edges
Television ads make “True Grit’’ look like quite the horror movie. Amid the gun fights, general thrill editing, and Josh Brolin looking real mean, the ads climax with Jeff Bridges, wearing an eye patch and a big hat, standing in a burning room and informing a suffering man that he can’t save him. The room is full of flames, and the soundtrack does some ominous chiming. I found myself excited to see that movie when, in fact, I already had.
“True Grit’’ is much less a Charles Bronson thriller than it is a straightforward western. It’s spiced with the sort of comedy one expects from Joel and Ethan Coen and driven by the kind of earnestness one doesn’t. Their star is Bridges, playing a rambling, alcoholic US marshal named Reuben “Rooster’’ Cogburn. Their protagonist is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a deadly serious 14-year-old from Yell County, Ark. She hires Cogburn to capture the man (Brolin) who killed her father, a farmer murdered on a business trip in 1880. The best way to build an ad campaign around this young woman, I suppose, is not to. But she’s the heart of the movie, and with her in their care, the Coens are on their best behavior.
This is somewhat disappointing news. One fellow loses some fingers and a few of the shootouts and one open-air duel are done with flair. But the movie seems chiefly transfixed by the excellence of its literary source material. Charles Portis’s novel was a bestseller in 1968. Its language was as pleasingly old-fashioned as the story was timelessly violent. On the page, Mattie was a force of natural ambition. She hires Cogburn to help her do her dirty work. The killer flees into Indian Territory (today known as Oklahoma) and needs his expertise in order to accomplish anything. This was more or less the gist of the film Portis’s book became the following year. The Hollywood veteran Henry Hathaway directed, and John Wayne, as Cogburn, amusingly lumbered his way through the movie and won himself an Oscar. If he wasn’t good or even consistent, he was intent.
The Coens’ movie isn’t a remake so much as a correction. For filmmakers as sharp and skillful as they, trying to top a Henry Hathaway movie is as good as aiming the snout of a rifle at a giant fish in a tiny barrel. Still, both movies are Saturday-matinee stuff, with the Coens striving to be purists. The truest act of revisionism here is of themselves. The movie maintains a morbid sense of humor. Cogburn sends Mattie clambering up a tree to cut down a hanged man, while he prattles on. And earlier, she arrives to settle her father’s affairs at the same time that a public hanging has filled the rooms of every boarding house. (She shares her bed with a virtual corpse who hogs the sheets.) Anticipation for the hanging feels apt. It was the “Saw IV’’ of 1880.
This is Steinfeld’s first movie, and she has the right portentousness for the role. Whether it’s the horse-dealer who dares swindle her or the goofy Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who winds up working with her and Cogburn, Mattie slays men with her humorlessness and superb diction. Steinfeld has a stern carriage, but Kim Darby’s mix of gumption and obnoxiousness in the original movie is sorely missed. Darby strutted around with an Opie Taylor haircut and benign cunning. She was likable only because of Darby’s insistence. With Steinfeld, the Coens split evenly down the middle between Scarlett O’Hara and Scout Finch. They might be overly protective. Even in irony, nothing about Steinfeld says, “Yell County, Ark.’’
She does work nicely with Bridges and especially Damon, namely by doing very little to keep each man from tickling himself. The ranger’s name is LaBoeuf, pronounced “La Beef,’’ and the essential appeal of this movie is how much pork there is in Bridges and Damon’s acting. Glen Campbell played La Beef as a bumpkin. Damon tries for something suitable for a Coen brothers’ production: a simpleton who aspires to be a stud. Playing drunk, Bridges’s jowls take on an Orson Welles swell and his inebriated growl is that of a man trying to push something out of his other end.
The Coens, meanwhile, have declawed themselves. They’re playing it straight. Carter Burwell’s score is almost as sappy as Elmer Bernstein’s original — maple syrup to Mrs. Butterworth’s. And an urgent night ride on an ill-equipped horse might be the most grimly romantic sequence the brothers have ever shot. Which is to say, it’s the only such shot. The sensationalistic wickedness of their most provocative work has, for one movie, been banished. This isn’t a rousing movie as much as a reassurance. The brothers prove they can play it straight, but they’re preferred, for better and worse, at a sharp angle.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.