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REVIEW | Western Competence: The Coens Play It Safe With "True Grit"

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 17, 2010 at 2:13AM

The 1969 version of "True Grit," an adaptation of Charles Portis's novel, starred John Wayne (in his late period, ultra-grizzly mode) as jaded U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man hired by determined Texan teen Maddie (Kim Darby) to track down the man who shot her father. The 2010 version of "True Grit" is grimier, slightly kookier, trades Wayne for Jeff Bridges in a role that fits him just as well -- and, perhaps most significantly, also trades Henry Hathaway's routine direction for the complex pastiche approach of Joel and Ethan Coen. Nevertheless, the Coens have restrained themselves this time out, resulting in a visually scrumptious product with little to offer beyond the acceptable ingredients of a classic western.
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The 1969 version of "True Grit," an adaptation of Charles Portis's novel, starred John Wayne (in his late period, ultra-grizzly mode) as jaded U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, a man hired by determined Texan teen Maddie (Kim Darby) to track down the man who shot her father. The 2010 version of "True Grit" is grimier, slightly kookier, trades Wayne for Jeff Bridges in a role that fits him just as well -- and, perhaps most significantly, also trades Henry Hathaway's routine direction for the complex pastiche approach of Joel and Ethan Coen. Nevertheless, the Coens have restrained themselves this time out, resulting in a visually scrumptious product with little to offer beyond the acceptable ingredients of a classic western.

The presence of Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down" in the "True Grit" trailer suggests a fierce, modern update to a genre woefully abandoned years ago. Instead, the Coens have crafted a smoothly formulaic accomplishment that seems likely to go down as one of the more prominent footnotes to their greater projects. That's not to say it doesn't work on its own terms; it does, often to dazzling effect: "True Grit" is a cinematic marvel that evokes the dreamy western iconography most commonly associated with John Ford. Photographed by Coens mainstay Roger Deakins, the vast, immersive vistas mesh nicely with a folksy soundtrack inspired by 19th century hymns courtesy of their other regular collaborator, composer Carter Burwell. Together, they recreate the welcome familiarity of a dust-caked universe.

The brothers' screenplay, at times markedly similar to the earlier adaptation, steadily tracks Mattie (impressively portrayed by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) as she persists in joining Rooster on the trail for her revenge, slowly sees beyond his rough exterior, and begins to view him as a surrogate father figure. When the body count rises, the Coens emphasize Mattie's growing disgust at the masculine violence around her, turning her experience into a dark coming-of-age story.

It's also a competent men-on-a-mission yarn, with Matt Damon rounding out the main cast as a clumsy ranger named LeBoeuf always one step behind Rooster's cautious detective work. Their progress has an erratic rhythm. After a lengthy trek through the wilderness, the trio finally closes in on their murdering target, the witless Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and the climax of "True Grit" briefly crumbles in a clumsy shootout before winding back to a satisfying conclusion.

Overall, however, "True Grit" has few memorable bits. Only specific comparisons between the two adaptations reveal the Coens' sly voice beneath the surface. Known for matching physical overstatement with keen insights about human behavior, their distinctive technique occasionally elevates "True Grit" to something beyond the boundaries of the genre. Fleeting comic violence (a pair of fingers suddenly lopped off; LeBeoeuf's hysterically awkward tongue injury) and the almost Malick-like stillness of the closing shot provide glimmers of the directors' stylistic flourishes.

Mainly, "True Grit" functions as an elaborate homage that results in their most conventional outing behind the camera. In recent years, the Coens have been second only to Pixar with their track record of churning out widely enjoyable movies, and their latest effort doesn't break that winning streak (at least not to the extent that, say, "The Ladykillers" did). Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that they settled for consistency over innovation. Thematically, "True Grit" contains numerous links to their previous films, from the barren landscapes of "No Country for Old Men" to the bumbling anti-hero of "The Big Lebowski." By blending into the material, it suits them. But that doesn't make it any less obvious that they can do better.

criticWIRE grade: B+

This article is related to: In Theaters, True Grit