Unless my math is wrong, True Grit is only the second feature film from Joel and Ethan Coen that isn’t an original creation: No Country for Old Men was based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but everything else in their filmography has been pulled fresh from the wells of their own considerable minds. (Granted, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was inspired by The Odyssey, but the interpretation was loose enough to break all but the simplest parallels; Homer probably never envisioned a near-sighted Klansmen partnered with a dwarf.) As such, it’s the most straightforward film they’ve ever made, the least morally ambiguous, and the most accessible. These are not inherently bad things, but they start to sound like it when you’re talking about the men who’ve created idiosyncratic worlds that often willfully resist casual visitors and offer curious and unique pleasures on their own terms. Even the Coens’ failures have been failures on their own terms, and with the flatness of True Grit, you start to realize how smart they were in adapting McCarthy’s novel for their previous Western, packed as it was with the moral wonderings and kind destiny-tinged damnation that seems to haunt the Coens’ own heroes. Drawn from Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, the Coens’ take on True Grit is a heartbreaking failure for how close it comes to being great. The solid cast gives dependable performances; the score from Carter Burwell captures everything from terror to triumph; and Roger Deakins’ cinematography brings a beautiful grace to even pedestrian set-ups. But the story is rote and predictable, with no sacrifices made nor victories won that aren’t telegraphed from the first scene. The screenplay, which leans heavily upon the original text, feels too often like a very skilled parody of a Coen brothers film, filled with fast-talking women and vaguely eerie Bible verses about the wicked and the righteous. It’s as if the Coens saw in the novel not a story they could tell but a cracked mirror they could hold up to their own creations, casting ugly reflections where beauties used to walk. The film is a technically proficient but emotionally empty experience, destined to rank as one of the brothers’ lesser achievements, pored over as a curious artifact of one of those moments when, however briefly, they lost their way.
Women in Coen brothers movies tend to be hyperactive and vaguely shrew-like, saddled with grand schemes and given to fast talk. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is no exception, but she’s the most natural fit for the persona because she’s 14 years old and doing her best to put on a brave face for a world that’s taken her father and left her in charge of her mother and siblings. Coming from her, the tics feel like actual choices a child would make to toughen herself up. Hailee’s father is killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a hired hand who got drunk and shot the man before riding off into Native American territory and falling in with a gang of thieves led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). This is life in the Old West, so Mattie rides into town to hire a marshal to track down Chaney and bring him to justice. Searching for a man with “true grit,” she settles on U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunkard who’s regarded as the toughest badge around. Cogburn falls into the slot typically occupied by Coen men: competent but slightly confused, able to execute a certain number of duties but ultimately at the whim of the winds that are carrying him through life. Mattie also makes the acquaintance of a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s been hunting Chaney ever since Chaney shot and killed a senator. Despite somewhat conflicting motivations, they throw in together and head out to purse Chaney.
That’s basically it. The A-B-C story line is one of the simplest in the Coens’ history —indeed, it’s one the trimmest possible for any film — and they show no haste as they gradually trot their characters through a wasteland that’s never as fearsome as it’s made out to be. Mattie recruited Cogburn because she needed a tracker and a guide through unsettled territory still crawling with native inhabitants who are justifiably pissed at finding their turf rezoned, but not a one of these warriors ever appears on screen. That’s one of the film’s basic problems: complications are given lip service, but you never get the sense that anyone’s in any real danger. The central trio splits up for a while before inevitably coming together again, and though they come across various low-level thieves in their pursuit of Chaney and Pepper, the only ones who wind up paying are the bad guys. This is a far, far cry from the more mature and interesting works the Coens have done in the past, and if that sounds like petty grousing, it’s only because the Coens have proven time and again that they are capable of making much more gripping and emotionally nuanced films than this one. Rather than adapt a story with their own sensibilities, they’ve taken a straightforward novel and its equally direct film version and just recycled the highlights.
There are little glimmers of something unique below the surface. One of Pepper’s cohorts is an insane man who communicates only through animal noises, and the moment when Mattie finally catches up to Chaney is a beautifully understated one that captures the awkwardness and terror of the situation far better than any stereotypical showdown between the forces of good and evil. Yet it’s that showdown that the entire film is driving toward, and rest assured, it happens just as you’d expect. The script is a letdown at almost every turn, whether its resorting to an easy series of genre tropes or dropping characters without giving them their due. The Coens’ emotional argument here is weaker than it’s ever been, in large part because they don’t seem to feel nearly as conflicted about the violence they’ve scripted as they usually are. The great tension in No Country for Old Men comes from rooting for a man doing bad things for noble reasons, yet Mattie’s bloodlust is here treated with no more intellectual probing than a trip to the grocer. Her vendetta isn’t explored for its consequences or for the way it might actually be turning her into someone like Chaney; it’s merely fuel for a vehicle that prizes motion over direction.
The individual performances, divorced of the larger story, are often entertaining. Bridges plays Cogburn with a throaty growl that’s somewhere between Bad Blake and Karl Childers, and there are even a few fleeting moments when he evokes The Dude. It’s enjoyable and fun, and he has genuine chemistry with Steinfeld, who was born when Bridges was 47 and is absolutely fearless onscreen. She strikes just the right balance between scared child and resilient adult, and she’s fantastic when sparring with the older men. Damon is great, too, easing into his 40s with grace in a gruff role that suits him nicely. They all spit out the dialogue with ease, never tripping over convoluted sentences that feel like Shakespeare’s version of a Western. Yet the brief moments in which they click with each other aren’t enough to make the rest of the film any more than a derivative and thin story that metes out plot points and easy justice like the Old West stories of the mid-20th century. There’s a place for those films in a historical sense, but we’re 50 years down the road, and the Coens have shown consistently that they’re willing and able to do bigger and better things. After all they’ve been through, this feels like a regression.
[Update: It turns out that my math, in typically weak fashion, was indeed incorrect. The Coen brothers’ 2004 film The Ladykillers was a remake of the 1955 comedy. Sadly, the rest of the argument remains the same.]
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.