Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon Ride the Lonely Plain of ‘True Grit’
CHICAGO – “True Grit” seems like the perfect project for Joel and Ethan Coen; something they had been working toward their entire career. Not only had they made what could be considered a modern Western already in “No Country Old Men” but they were to bring together The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) under the magnificent lens of the great Roger Deakins. It nearly had to be a masterpiece.
“True Grit” is no masterpiece. It’s a good film that’s nearly great and absolutely worth seeing but the Coen’s cold detachment hurts them with this project more than any other in their career. This enormous fan of not only the Coens but Westerns and nearly the entire cast and crew of this piece so wanted to love “True Grit,” and so it’s somewhat disappointing to say that I merely like it. I understand why people will fall head over heels for it but my feet stayed firmly on the ground.
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures
The movie, which is more loyal to the book than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 Oscar-winning John Wayne-starring feature, tells the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl looking for vengeance for the murder of her father. The film opens and closes with Mattie and she’s in nearly every scene of the film and yet Steinfeld is somehow winning Supporting Actress awards for the role. It’s nonsense. Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” similarly plays a young lady looking for patriarch-related justice and merely because she’s a scant few years older, and doesn’t have Oscar winners opposite her, she’s widely-recognized as the lead in that film. Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross is the lead of “True Grit.” It’s her story.
And that story really starts when Mattie hires “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find the man (Josh Brolin) responsible for her father’s murder. They also cross paths with an unrefined Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) as they head into Indian Territory and battle mother nature, wildlife, and a deadly gang led by Ned Pepper (a great turn from Barry Pepper) as they search for vengeance, justice, and mere bounty. Everyone in “True Grit” is there for a different reason but they eventually form a codependent team as Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf each play a significant role in the action.
“True Grit” is an undeniably beautiful film. The legendary Roger Deakins (“No Country For Old Men,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) is one of the best cinematographers that ever lived and his work on “True Grit” is exceptional, as is that of another regular Coen collaborator, composer Carter Burwell. And with “Roderick Jaynes” editing and the Coens directing, it goes without saying that “True Grit” is going to be one of the most technically beyond reproach films of the year. It’s stunning to look at.
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures
And as cold as the landscape on which Rooster, Mattie, and LaBoeuf travel. The Coens haven’t felt this distant from their characters since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Critics of the Oscar-winning brothers have long accused the men of being technical masters without enough heart and I’ve never really agreed until “True Grit.” I wanted to love the film instead of admire it. I wanted to enjoy it instead of respect it. The emotional hook of the piece just isn’t there. So, while I will watch “True Grit” and always admire its technical accomplishments, I’d much rather spend time with previous Coen creations like Anton Chigurh, Marge Gunderson, Barton Fink, and H.I. McDunnough. I simply enjoy their company more than I do the lonely denizens of the plain of “True Grit.”
It’s through no real fault of the performers — Steinfeld actually steals the show, delivering the most engaging performance in the film — but Bridges can do this kind of thing in his sleep. There’s not the depth to this character that he usually brings to his best performances although I think it’s a distance that can be attributed more to the director than the actor. Brolin and Pepper also bring the piece to the life with a bit of scene-stealing in the final act.
Film is not the sum of its parts. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is spectacular. There are very strong performances, including a star-making turn by a young lady. The Coens are beyond the point where they make technically-poor decisions. The individual parts of “True Grit” are those that make up a masterpiece but it’s the way they are put together that keep the film from becoming one. I just wanted to feel something, anything about Rooster and Mattie’s journey. I just wanted one shocking moment or filmmaking choice that didn’t seem so polished. I just wanted to be jolted out of what some have chosen to call the “surprisingly straightforward” film and blown away like I have been so many times by Joel and Ethan. Perhaps it’s merely the product of ridiculously-high expectations but critics are only human and mine simply weren’t met by “True Grit.”