The Coen Brothers don’t make bad movies. Sure some are frustrating (A Serious Man), others are offbeat (The Man Who Wasn’t There) and some unpredictable (No Country for Old Men) but they are always carefully crafted with ingenius characters, setpieces and imagination . True Grit is probably one of their most commercial and safe offerings. This is a good and a bad thing.
Beginning with a narration from the young and resourceful Mattie Ross (a wonderful Hailee Steinfield) as to the reasons for her father’s murder by a travelling lowlife, Tom Chaney (an underused Josh Brolin), we follow this clever young women’s crusade for justice. After a fantastic scene where Mattie mentally outmuscles a local business man into buying back her father’s ponies at a profit, we are introduced to the two men that will be used to track Chaney, US Marshall Reuben Cogburn (a shoot first and ask questions later mercenary) played with an equal helping of comedy and menace by Jeff Bridges and pompous Texas Ranger, Lebeuf (Matt Damon). The introduction to the characters is a joy to watch, especially a courtroom vocal battle with Cogburn and a ‘pencil neck’ lawyer. There is also a neck cracking hanging with the final words of three law breakers being used for tragic and comical effect.
The movie’s big problem begins when the trio begin to track Chaney. The early structure of the story seems to unravel into a series of sketches and events that don’t knit together. Where as an early shootout at a rundown shack is brutal and tense, the final confrontation seems rushed and too slick. This is in no way the fault of the actors, script and cinematography which is all first class but perhaps the Coen’s inability to get to the point, or maybe that is the point. The introduction of a bizarre Witchdoctor in bear skins and an animal grunting gang member does not seem to add anything to the plot. It just breaks up the pacing.
Bridge’s Cogburn has a lot in common with Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in the superior, The Unforgiven (1989). They both love their hard liquor, are natural born killers and act quick without hesitation. However, where Eastwood’s character seemed more rounded as he regretted the atrocities he comitted but acknowledged that it was the only thing he was good for, Cogburn does not seem to regret the history of carnage that he has left in his wake. Perhaps even Bridges’s role is overshadowed by Damon’s bumbling but talented ranger, LeBeuf, who adds multiple layers to a character with very little screen time.
At the end of the day, True Grit is probably a stronger movie than the John Wayne original but it is not a classic western. This is a shame because all the ingredients were there for it to fall into this category.