Full disclosure: The first two times I tried to watch this Coen Brothers remake of John Wayne’s 1969 film, I fell right asleep.
I’m a fan of the Coens’ sensibility nearly across the board, and of stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I was impressed by Hailee Steinfeld’s turn as 14 year-old spitfire Maddie Ross and tickled to see my long-ago acting teacher have a nice long chewy courtroom scene with Bridges. Is it just that it’s a western that sent me packing with the sandman? Twice?
Most of the dialogue lacked, for me, that tart Coen Brothers flair, though much of Bridges’ witty comebacks were crushed by the fistful of marbles in his mouth. Bridges proved with Crazy Heart that he can be a stinky, irascible drunk like a pro, but I never felt his character carried him further than grudging acceptance of any situation, and he followed no arc that I could see or care about. Steinfeld’s character is a real pleasure, and her performance is enjoyable as all get out. Damon’s arrogant Texas accent and demeanor hint at comedy that never materialized — it was like he spent the whole of his role prepping himself for the movie he never got to be in.
I am always drooling for more Carter Burwell and Roger Deakins. But here composer Burwell took a page out of Titanic’s book and dropped in a “Nearer My God To Thee” theme which, once heard, could not be unheard. The scenery was non-standard Old West, though it smacked of more verisimilitude than the sweeping scrub mountains of so many past spaghetti westerns. Even Deakins wasn’t able to keep my eyes distracted by beauty as he usually does through the slog of the tale.
The narrative is simple: girl hires man to help her avenge her father’s death and complications ensue. While I can’t put my finger on anything being wrong with the movie, it just felt from start to finish (finally achieved on the third viewing) like it never actually got going. Is this the fault of the source material? The 1969 original film or the novel from which all grit sprang?
If I am to interpret the material correctly, I would say that the point was that Maddie was the one with the real grit and determination, and Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) is but the vessel through which she is able to reach her goals. Still, it was a long way to go when she manages just fine getting herself across in one key scene with Dakin Matthews.
True Grit is perfectly made — maybe that’s the problem. In trying to hew away from the relatively cornball reputation of the original, perhaps the Coens dialed everything down to safe and perfect, like a fun live band that loses its quirky energy in a recording studio. I longed for the Hudsucker Proxy/O Brother Where Art Thou whimsy.
I didn’t dislike much about the film, but I came away feeling absolutely nothing. I recognize that I am in the minority, critically speaking, but I recommend you save your money for the ones that move you.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/22/10
Time in minutes 110
Director Joel and Ethan Coen