From The Coens, A Grittier Sort Of Truth Out West

Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon

hide captionAfter hiring a U.S. Marshal to find her father's killer, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld, left) joins forces with Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who's tracking the same man.

Wilson Webb/Paramount Pictures

True Grit

  • Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
  • Genre: Western
  • Running Time: 110 minutes

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing imagery

With: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Joel and Ethan Coen are probably tired of the question, but you can't not ask it: Why make a film of Charles Portis' 1968 novel True Grit when it already was a movie — a good one — with a definitive, Oscar-winning performance by John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn? After all, it's not like the brothers need the work.

On the basis of the new film, I'd say the Coens made their own True Grit because their voice and sensibility owe something to Portis. Their dialogue, like his, is a blend of the baroque and the deadpan, their vision nihilistic with a hint of farce.

The Coens signal their approach to True Grit by replacing the Duke with the Dude — Jeff Bridges, late of their film The Big Lebowski — and by introducing him, or at least his voice, from an outhouse. He sits inside and churlishly refuses to engage with Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl who seeks a man with "true grit" to help her capture the drunken handyman who gunned down her father.

Rooster is a mean drunk who once rode with William Quantrill, the man who led the infamous Lawrence, Kan., massacre of 1863. Bridges plays up the debauchery: He's half-hidden behind an unruly beard and mustache, and his nose and cheeks are dotted with the alcoholic's classic burst blood vessels. He's lowered his voice so that it seems to slosh around in a pool of whiskey and phlegm; even with his deliberate, quasi-biblical diction, maybe half his words are intelligible.

As you might infer from all that drunken, surly verbiage, the movie takes its sweet time to get going. But as soon as Mattie, Rooster and a Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon head off for Oklahoma's Indian Country, the movie finds its peculiar rhythm. Damon is a wonderful foil for Bridges, with his ostentatious jangling spurs and fringed jacket. He's a macho preener, but he lives by a gentleman's code, and he's dogged.

Young Steinfeld, in her film debut, has a prim little unsmiling face and a Gatling-gun delivery that makes you laugh. Her banter with Damon can be acid, but they're good company — like the movie.

Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges

hide captionOn a mission that's half revenge plot, half quest for justice, the three track their target across an American West that looks precious little like John Wayne's.

Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures

Unlike the 1968 True Grit, which had the look of a classic Southwest John Wayne picture, the Coens' version unfolds in barren high deserts and wintry forests, with a Carter Burwell score that's built around elegiac Protestant spirituals. In Roger Deakins' beautifully deep-toned cinematography, the frontier is like a vast graveyard, still resonating with the deaths of Native Americans and the carnage of the Civil War. Rotting bodies hang from trees. In one surreal shot, a bear on horseback slowly approaches —only it turns out to be a man, bigger and older and hairier than Bridges' Rooster, with an even deeper voice. He's a nomad searching for anything, even a corpse, to buy and sell.

Retribution, when it comes, has no particular kick — or, rather, without giving anything away, its kick leads to a new disaster and can't be savored. Even when the lone-gunfighter hero rises up to face off against the bad guys, there is no catharsis, no sense of wrongs cosmically righted. Perhaps that's why the Coens' True Grit, amusing and impressive as it is, is an arm's-length experience without much emotional power. The brothers have reclaimed Portis' novel from John Wayne by making it darker and colder and more grotesque. The prevailing stoicism and death are their idea of realism — of true grittiness.

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