I’ve always been much more a fan (and a big one) of Coen brothers comedy than of Coen brothers suspense. Call it a matter of taste but No Country for Old Men wasn’t the ambiguous morality masterpiece to me that it was to so many a movie goer. I can still appreciate the brushstrokes of dangerous isolation, be it on the snowed over roads of Fargo or the heat mirage horizon of the aforementioned Old Men, and the worn psyches of characters in well over their heads.
Sadly, what I took away most from their recent attempt to remake True Grit was that none of those brushstrokes were visible. Subtlety is a powerful force but the emotions and motivations for this one are buried too deep beneath the surface for a film that takes on the mainstream PG-13.
Young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is the glue that holds all of True Grit’s characters together, but only in the plotline. As an actual character she’s purely one-note, a quick witted realist well beyond her years in wisdom who will stop at nothing to bring her father’s killer to justice, even if that means gambling on a ruthless and reckless headhunter also well beyond his years at sixty one.
Her vulnerability is revealed in peril, but we never see it in the actress. Even staring the devil dead-on, Mattie can’t show us a droplet of fear or a sliver of hate. We only get the matter-of-factness from 13 year old Hailee Steinfeld’s performance. This material called for quite a bit more.
Alongside her paid-for lethal weapon Rooster (Jeff Bridges), Mattie outwits her enemies and learns the land, a sort of a 19th century wilderness Leon and Mathilda of The Professional, with Rooster poised to lay cold anyone who stands between them and Mattie’s target, and the little girl prepared to chip in when certain tasks can only be handled by a disarming individual. This is fun enough to watch but not only do Mattie and Rooster lack the melancholic soul mates dynamic, they seem to lack any connection at all.
When fragile Mattie is in danger, gunfire pops the audience out of their seats, but that’s merely a testament to sound design when there’s little reason to care about her fate. Most notably, we’re never offered the slightest glimpse into Mattie’s connection to her deceased father. It’s almost as if her actions are those of pure responsibility, vengeance by decree.
Thankfully the movie is still captivating, not for the action, danger, or cinematography that one would expect, but for the fine screwball humor barely hinted at in True Grit’s marketing. Jeff Bridges cruises on his perfectly timed line delivery and air of existentialist charm once again, making the space between the lines more satisfying than bore-fest bloodshed. Matt Damon as a holier-than-thou Texas Ranger also rises to the occasion. When he joins the hunt, True Grit almost becomes The Odd Couple.
Lastly, in the other supporting actors there’s an approach that ties together this film as Mattie should have, and it may reveal what the directors were trying for. The characters, be they mountain wanderers, lawmen, or psychopaths all have a strange sort of sensitivity about them. Battles are negotiated before they’re fought, and I got the impression that instinct for human contact and compassion betrays everyone’s exterior, if only for a moment before lines are crossed. It could be this technique is designed to magnify the humorless persona of Mattie Ross, but it also picks at the limitations of the tough-as-nails Western genre.
Coen brothers innovation didn’t thread together the better western that we hoped for. True Grit only finds its dramatic legs in the epilogue, but it’s still well worth watching Jeff Bridges reshape an iconic John Wayne role to be less El Dorado and more El Duderino.
Overall Score: 6.85 – Okay. (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide.)