[ CITY PAPER GRADE: B+ ]
Although their movies rarely feel like they take place in the real world, Joel and Ethan Coen are revisionist historians of a kind. Even their most idiosyncratic films feel like riffs on an established genre, or sometimes several at once. As their second remake and their second literary adaptation, True Grit is especially weighted with ties to the past, although the Coens don't concern themselves overly with the 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis' novel.
That version, directed by Hollywood old hand Henry Hathaway, won John Wayne an Oscar in a year otherwise dominated by
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Midnight Cowboy, a successful rear-guard action by the Academy's conservative wing. Jeff Bridges, who fills the role of one-eyed bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn in the Coens' remake, is hardly the company-town favorite Wayne was, but the Coens' version is closer in spirit to the original movie than its countercultural competition. The Coens'
True Grit is uncharacteristically, even oddly, restrained, its images softened by the haze of frontier dust. Well, that and a thorough digital going-over in postproduction; the movie has a plastic, sometimes suffocating look akin to the brothers' overworked
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Especially in the context of the Coens' oeuvre, where he inevitably brings with him an aura of Dudeliness, casting Bridges as Rooster gives the character a slovenly air; when Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was gunned down in cold blood by the slow-witted Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), first makes contact with Rooster, it's through the wall of a privy. "The jakes is occupied" is his only response to her offer of cash for the corpse of her father's killer.
A subject first broached in the vicinity of an open-air outhouse, vengeance in True Grit is a dirty business — not an eye for an eye, but something more visceral, and inevitably less just. As he sets out on Chaney's trail, Rooster makes an awkward alliance with LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who has traveled clear up to Arkansas in hopes of bringing him back for the price on his head — an arrangement to which the mercenary Rooster has no objection, so long as he gets his cut. But Mattie refuses to budge. For him to die in Texas, hung for some other crime, is not enough. Chaney has to know why he's dying, for her father's murder and not his other crimes.
Blood is shed along the way. Chaney has joined forces with a gang of outlaws led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), two of whose less perspicacious members are unlucky enough to get caught unawares by Rooster and LaBoeuf. Fingers are severed and weapons discharged, a situation that's marked down as regrettable but in no way sorrowful. Out in this country, where, to steal a phrase from John Ford's Stagecoach, they're "safe from the blessings of civilization," a man is worth more dead than alive. Rooster opts out of burying a man to whom he'd promised a Christian end — the man's own fault for getting shot in winter, he drawls — but he has Mattie scuttle several dozen feet up a ragged tree to cut down a hanged man's corpse, on the off chance it might bring a few dollars.
Even in their most glib exercises (their previous remake, The Ladykillers, being the least among them), the Coens wrestle with moral issues, but they've rarely done so as nakedly as in True Grit, and it turns out that transparency doesn't suit them. The film's ersatz classicism feels more like an exercise than their overtly stylized films; it feels like there's more of the Coens in Intolerable Cruelty or The Hudsucker Proxy than there is here. Carter Burwell's score, which runs riffs on the gospel standard "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," evokes John Ford's habitual use of "Red River Valley," but the Coens don't submerge themselves in frontier mythos the way Ford did. Bridges is in his performance up to the hips, but the movie doesn't get its hands dirty. There's beauty to True Grit, but not enough depth. The Coens are revealing when they've got somewhere to hide.
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. A Paramount Pictures release. Opens in area theaters Wed., Dec. 22.