The best way to approach Joel and Ethan Coen’s eagerly awaited True Grit is to lower your expectations, then lower them a bit more. The problem is not the movie, which is a terrific, no-nonsense, straightforward western. The surprise – or vague disappointment – is the prevailing lack of Coen-ness in the movie – the cynical, bemused irony, the weird little flourishes and curlicues at the edges of scenes, the resigned bleakness that usually courses beneath their best films (No Country For Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There).
You can see what drew the Coens to remake a movie that featured John Wayne in one of his most iconic roles: Charles Portis’ novel is so chock-full of verbose, dense wordplay, True Grit sounds like the Coens wrote it themselves (roughly 70 percent of the dialogue comes straight from the book, though). One of the early scenes in the film, in which 14-year-old Mattie (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, in a stand-up-and-take-notice debut) haggles with a horse trader over the price of her murdered father’s steeds, is a breathless and hilarious exchange tinged with just a touch of surreal humor, a Coen specialty.
Much of True Grit, however, is played straight. Mattie, eager to avenge her father’s murder by the treacherous Tom Chaney (John Brolin), hires the alcoholic, cranky marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, taking his paunchy drunkard schtick from Crazy Heart a few yards deeper). At first, Rooster, who’s never seen a corked bottle he didn’t want to pop open, patronizes the girl and sends her on her way. But when she persists and proves she can pay the promised reward, the marshal agrees to the job.
Also on Chaney’s trail is a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), eager to collect the bounty on the fugitive’s head. After much discussion – and a daring river crossing on horseback by Mattie to prove she can handle herself – the three agree to pursue their man together. The Coens give Damon a great entrance, and the actor proves a natural at tangling with his two unlikely partners (“You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements,” he tells the driven Mattie. “You do not varnish your opinion!”)
The heart of True Grit is the relationship between the gruff Rooster and the spunky Mattie, which gradually transforms from a business deal to a paternal bond. Once again working with their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens embrace the hallmarks of the western genre – the wide open vistas, untamed terrain and the human snakes lurking throughout. The movie doesn’t opt for an epic sweep: The story is light on gunplay and sticks close to the three lead characters, with Bridges delivering a highly entertaining turn as the irascible drunkard who is much more astute and experienced than he appears (he’s so ornery, he kicks kids off porch steps when they are in his way, then kicks them again on his way out just for the hell of it).
The Coens have always loved genre, so naturally they would eventually try their hand at a straight-up oater. The movie’s modesty is surprising and initially feels like a bit of a letdown. But once you settle in with the film that’s in front of you, instead of the one you were expecting, True Grit draws you in as fully as the Coens’ best work and culminates with a surprisingly moving epilogue that proves the directors weren’t just conducting a technical exercise. What True Grit lacks in eccentricity or originality, it makes up for with real heart – and ear-tickling wordplay.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper.
Writers-directors: Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Producers: Scott Rudin, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Violence, gore. Playing at area theaters.