‘True Grit’ unfortunately low on grit

By Drew Hunt

After trying their hand at a myriad of genres, Ethan and Joel Coen delve into the Western in their newest movie, “True Grit,” a remake of a 1969 film of the same name that won John Wayne his only Oscar. In their rendition, the Coens switch the Duke for the Dude, giving the reins to Jeff Bridges who re-imagines the role and infuses it with gruffness unbecoming of the persona of Wayne.

The film looks beautiful—another strong effort from cinematographer and frequent collaborator Roger Deakins—and is as thoroughly entertaining a film as any to be released this holiday season. But while it may seem like a Coen brothers’ Western is long overdue, “True Grit” proves to have a more conventional approach to genre than their other attempts.

There’s a certain punch strongly absent in “True Grit.” Their filmography as a whole often takes an acerbic or even cynical tone, and they rarely offer any morsel of compassion to their characters. However, while far from the feel-good film of the year, “True Grit” often employs a kind of sentimentalism unbecoming of the Coens. This deviation from their firmly established style is disarming, to say the least.

For a film called “True Grit,” it’s not all that gritty. In fact, it plays more like a comedy of manners than a rough and tough, shoot-’em-up Western. The film’s main characters—Matt Damon as the proud Texas Ranger, La Beouf, Bridges as the grizzled Rooster Cogburn, and Hailee Steinfeld as the hardheaded and sharply tongued Mattie Ross—represent a sort of class and social structure, and their jokes and quips are on par with a British farce.

As they seek to track down the villainous Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the get increasingly under one another’s skin until finally rallying together near the film’s climax. It’s a typical construct, but not a lazy one. In spite of the film’s weaker moments, “True Grit” remains consistently entertaining thanks to strength of its actors and the cleverness of the Coens.

Their blithe interaction belies the brilliantly wordy dialogue of the Coens’ screenplay—which borrows heavily from the source material provided by Charles Portis, who wrote the book on which the film is based. Bridges delivers his lines in a lazy, almost inaudible fashion. He’s decidedly anti-Duke, but better encapsulates the darkly comic tone of Portis’ novel. Le Beouf is the film’s designated “miles gloriosus,” haughty by nature and portrayed genuinely by Damon. Steinfeld, meanwhile, is the straight man and her Mattie Ross is never short on gravitas.

Where the film loses footing is in its complacency. “True Grit” lacks a sense of chaos that permeates the Coens’ stronger efforts. The allure of a their films remains the sense of chaos that stews beneath the calmer moments and the notion that extreme acts of violence could happen at the drop of a hat—like when one of the main characters in “Burn After Reading” mordantly and unexpectedly bites the dust. Save for a brilliant scene about halfway through the film when an entirely congenial coversation devolves into a Mexican stand off, the film remains somewhat lackluster in execution.

A sense of capricious fatalism is woefully lacking in “True Grit,” as is the Coens’ penchant for wry filmic experimentation. What makes them such masters of genre filmmaking is their ability to subvert and deconstruct whichever realm they happen to be working in—such as their neo-noir “Fargo,” in which the normally cunning femme fatale is transformed into a bumbling, male moron. But with “True Grit,” the Coens opt to merely pay homage to the Western as opposed to bending its rules. Even with its tasteful nods to John Ford and Anthony Mann, the film feels decidedly un-Coenesque.

It’s as straight-forward a film as they’re likely to make, and for that reason “True Grit” won’t place in the upper echelon of their body of work. Still, such an assertion is admittedly splitting hairs: while it might not bare the marks of previous efforts, the Coen brothers continue their string of solid and engaging films.