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True Grit Review

By Joe Lozito

Coen West


For better or worse, a Coen Brothers movie comes with certain expectations. Quirky characters, regional accents, drier-than-sand humor, sudden, brutal violence. Over the course of their long - and almost unthinkably varied - career, the Coens have virtually become a genre unto themselves. The subjects of their films may change, but the Coen quality is always there. So audiences can be forgiven for expecting a lot from "True Grit", the Coens' adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. They will be disappointed.

Many may already be familiar with 1969's corny John Wayne version of "Grit" (for which The Duke won his only Oscar). The Coens are not among them; though the Brothers saw the Wayne adaptation in their youth, they've pointedly stated that they went back to the original novel for their film and did not rewatch the Wayne version. Funny, then, that this new "Grit" follows so closely to the 1969 one. Perhaps the book was so prescriptive in its plot that it could only be adapted one way. But if that's the case, it's unclear why the Coens would undertake the project to begin with.

Said plot, as ever, revolves around young Mattie Ross, a 14 year-old spitfire in Old West-era Alabama out to avenge her father's death. It seems Daddy was gunned down by the outlaw Tom Chaney, and Mattie wants to see Chaney hanged. After the murder, Chaney high-tailed it into "Injun Territory", so Mattie must engage the services of a Federal Marshal in her quest. Enter Rooster Cogburn, the meanest, hard-drinkin'est, unshaven'est gunslinger to ever wear a Marshal's badge.

John Wayne, as he typically did, made Cogburn an extension of himself and he even got a "Rooster Cogburn" sequel for his trouble. The character is proudly "too old and fat" and it's widely believed that Wayne got the Oscar more for his body of work than for his performance (especially considering the other films released that year). In this new "Grit", Jeff Bridges takes on the role and he is in full scenery-chewing mode. It's as if he took his Bad Blake character from "Crazy Heart", aged him thirty years, filled him full of cheap whiskey and dragged him behind a horse for a good hour. But even under an eye patch and a nearly incomprehensible snarl, Mr. Bridges is a pleasure to watch. He's basically all that keeps the movie interesting.

In the pivotal role of Mattie, Hailee Steinfeld acquits herself well, though her character is so single-minded, and given so little backstory, that it's impossible to get to know her or, more damagingly, root for her. The relationship that forms between Mattie and Rooster should be the cornerstone of the movie, but Mr. Bridges and Ms. Steinfeld - despite some light bickering - never seem to be more than travelling companions.

In their quest for Chaney, they run afoul of a few colorful characters: Matt Damon smirks his way through the role of a proud Texas Ranger, Barry Pepper is hardly used as the sinister Lucky Ned Pepper, and Josh Brolin just looks lost as Chaney. None of them leave much of an impression - another surprise from the Coen Brothers, whose supporting characters are typically so well realized.

If you want to see an adaptation of "True Grit", it's a toss-up between the original and the Coen version. Both tell the same story. The Coens' is certainly beautifully shot, has better dialogue and features a snarling, shaggy Jeff Bridges. But the Rooster/Mattie relationship in the original is actually more compelling. So proceed with caution in your selection. Or just skip them both. Perhaps, in the end, "True Grit" simply isn't much of a story. And, expectations aside, this new "Grit" feels like Coen through the motions.

What did you think?

Movie title True Grit
Release year 2010
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary This disappointing Coen Brothers foray into the Western genre has little of the Brothers' trademark quality and barely improves on the John Wayne original.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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