The Coen Brothers’ films are filled with winks and nods to Spaghetti Westerns and cowboy movies from the last century. Their films share with the genre a vocabulary for rustic violence (“No Country For Old Men”), barren landscapes (“Fargo”) and offbeat characters (“The Big Lebowski”).
So it’s fitting that with “True Grit,” they’ve finally taken the genre head-on.
“True Grit,” the duo’s adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld in her film debut) on a mission to avenge her father’s death with the help of two mismatched cowboy lawmen.
In an early scene, we’re introduced to Mattie as she nimbly barters with an old grumpy businessman over some of her father’s ponies. It’s our first glimpse of her intellect and razor sharp tongue and Mattie doesn’t just get the better half of the deal; she runs circles around him. Part of the fun of “True Grit” is watching Mattie fearlessly, if not peskily, use her agile grasp of English on some seriously grizzled and dusty-bearded cowboys.
And there’s no cowboy more grizzled or dusty-bearded than Rooster Cogburn, a washed-up alcoholic and morally flexible lawman played by Jeff Bridges (with a hint of Dudeliness). He’s a man of “true grit,” a quality Mattie hopes will carry her to the swift capture of her father’s killer.
But Cogburn’s “grit” seems to waver with his BAC, so enters Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to join the pursuit (played to a tee by Matt Damon). At first, Damon’s good looks seem too soft-handed for a Ranger. But next to Cogburn, LaBoeuf is a clean-cut, preppy excuse for a cowboy, pretentiously proud of his home state and perpetually the butt-end of Cogburn’s slants. LaBoeuf talks about being a Texas Ranger the way Andy Bernard talks about Cornell and Damon exerts those self-important lines with a hilarious and subtle precision.
So begins, after some stutter steps, the trio’s journey for revenge across Arkansas’ deserts, canyons and forests. Roger Deakins, the Coens’ career cinematographer, thrives in these barren settings as he did in “No Country For Old Men” and “Fargo.” Deakins frames these landscapes to illustrate not only their beauty, but the danger and solitude of the frontier in the 19th century and the fear this provokes in Mattie.
“True Grit” is thoroughly enjoyable but seems to suffer for its loyalty to the novel. Like so many verbatim book-to-movie translations, this film struggles to establish pace. Though filled with stimulating dialogue and beautiful moments, “True Grit” fails to portray those moments economically and as a result, the film’s rhythm is difficult to absorb, weaving between jerky spurts of action and longwinded scenes propelled with the urgency of a tumbleweed.
More than anything, “True Grit” illustrates a reverence for the genre and while falling short in pace, succeeds in bringing the Coen Brothers’ trademark humor and storytelling to the Western genre.