Ten Word or Less Review: Coen’s remake John Wayne. And?
True Grit is perhaps the most undefiant movie Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. The Coen’s have over the years developed an acidic and loathsome disposition towards their characters and by extension their audience. There was nothing but thinly veiled contempt for characters of their last effort A Serious Man and if Burn After Reading didn’t make you feel like a chump you weren’t paying much attention. Grit defies these tendencies, sort of, and is populated by strong willed protagonists who win over the audience. It’s very straight forward and doesn’t deviate much from its source material. It doesn’t intentionally rankle in places and the trademark quirks which typify Coen work are held in check, sort of. It’s the oddest thing they’ve made by virtue of how straight forward the whole experience is. It’s so ‘just a western’, that it’s almost a let down.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Hattie Ross, an intimidating and intelligent 14-year old who comes to a small Arkansas town to deal with the murder of her father at the hands of the vile Tom Cheaney (Josh Brolin). Her personality is so fierce and determined that talking down to her because of her gender or age is simply not allowed. She barters with business owners and lawmen like unbendable steel. As her father’s killer has escaped into indian territory, she hires, more like forces, the disreputable Rooster Cogburn to catch her father’s killer. Cogburn’s (Jeff Bridges) a trigger lovin’ U.S. Marshall who shoots easily and ask things much later, if at all. Also after Cheaney is La Boeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger whose been after Cheaney for months. This odd trio set out into dangerous land to catch Cheaney, as well as tolerate the other.
There’s very little criticism to aim at the performers in Grit. Steinfeld grabs hold of her role as Ross and makes would could become tiresome and bossy robustly entertaining. She stands toe to toe with any and all comers and is convincing at every turn. A compliment from Damon’s La Boeuf says it best, “You’ve earned your spurs.” Bridges, taking on one of John Wayne’s most iconic parts, turns Cogburn into a messy but noble lout. He’s a functional drunk who looks like he’d fall out of his clothes if it were possible and who is barely hanging onto the ability to form coherent speech. If Bridges won a legion of followers as The Dude he could win another one as this grimy smartass. Damon amuses well enough as the diction refined La Bouef. Brolin’s role as Cheaney is not much more than an extended cameo.
Where Grit feels off is in on an under the surface level, as in it doesn’t have one. When not trenched in outright comedy the Coen’s are known for making types of movies which can enthrall with dramatic heft and entrance with thematic resonance. Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, No Country, several others, time and again these movies sock you in the intellect as well as the gut. People don’t just kill or die in these films, to kill or be killed comes drenched in consequences for scores of other characters and the demised always have something to plead before their exit. Grit has none of this. The pomp and circumstance which typifies their best work is all but amputated, leaving the viewer with an enjoyable and mildly quirky western, nothing more. As strong as the work is from so many parties involved, when Grit ends, in abrupt Coen fashion, there’s next to nothing to dwell on or take away. It’s just over and that’s that.
Plenty of filmmakers make movies without setting out to ‘SAY SOMETHING’ and are never called to task for it. Sometimes a message is damned annoying. Maybe it’s unfair to deny the Coen’s the right to simply make an entertaining movie. True Grit is very entertaining. I will make no bones about that. But after all these years and all their films, both grand and lousy, for them to essentially say next to nothing with a work comes as a minor shock. Those expecting the Coen’s to challenge the stature of Unforgiven should refine their expectations. Those expecting to see Jeff Bridges chew delightfully on good looking scenery, you will be more than satisfied.