The Coen brothers have made great movies. No Country for Old Men is well loved and an Oscar Winner for Best Picture. The Big Lebowski would go close to being the most popular cult film ever made and what is widely considered their best film, Fargo, is a classic. So the Coens are no strangers to greatness.
Their latest film, True Grit, fails to bridge that crucial gap between a good, capable, well-executed film and a great one.
Based on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, which was made into a film starring John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn the year after, True Grit follows 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) on the trail of her father’s killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). To do this, she enlists the help of drunken deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LeBouef (Matt Damon).
This version of the Portis novel sticks much closer to the book than the 1969 original, which catered more to John Wayne’s heroic instincts and cast 21 year old Kim Darby in the role of Mattie.
Here, the role of Mattie is filled by Hailee Steinfeld and she’s fantastic. It’s a more involving story in many ways with her at the centre of it – she’s the film’s beating heart and Steinfeld fills the screen with charm and wisdom beyond her years. She plays every note along her character’s journey beautifully and is a standout in a few choice moments.
It’s moments that the Coen brothers are most interested in here – they linger where other films might have moved on. Set pieces involving hanging corpses or confrontations are given more time and credence – and while that will annoy some people who want a great story to rollick along, that’s rarely how the Coen brothers work.
There’s no harm in that, though, when the moments are filmed and scored so atmospherically. Regular Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins is his usual capable, artistic self and the score by Carter Burwell is really excellent. I don’t often think about buying a soundtrack to a film but I would consider it here.
All this adds up to a well-made, effective, involving film – but nothing much more than that. First of all, my view on remakes is that if you’re going to go to the trouble of remaking a film you have to reinvent the story enough to warrant the effort. But that doesn’t happen here – it’s a series of tweaks, adjustments and changes that don’t add up to any thematic improvements. You’ll enjoy this film as you watch it – and forget it afterwards.
The other performances are all as great as you’d expect. I especially like the casting of Damon as LaBoeuf – he manages to bring an unexpected level of both comedic and dramatic depth to his scenes and I think the film is better when he’s in it. Jeff Bridges is decent as Rooster Cogburn, drunken, swaggering, slurring – but I don’t think he brings enough to the role to warrant a Best Actor nomination. Josh Brolin oozes sleaze and charisma in his few scenes as villainous Chaney and Barry Pepper is effectively menacing as his namesake, Ned Pepper.
All in all it’s difficult to criticize a film when all the elements that make it up are this good – but it doesn’t have that spark, that extra something that really makes a great film. I don’t think True Grit will last in our memories like The Social Network might. If you’re wondering if it’s worth seeing, it is –my problem is I’m not sure it’s worth remembering. 14/20
OVERALL RANKINGS FOR THE YEAR
The King’s Speech 17/20
The Fighter 15/20
True Grit 14/20
Black Swan 12/20
The Green Hornet 7/20