True Grit (Paramount Pictures, PG-13)

I’m almost sorry to say it, but if this was the Coens’ obvious attempt to recapture the success of No Country for Old Men, it kind of worked.

The Coen brothers are known for not repeating themselves from film to film and for maintaining a singular voice and cinematic mark that ties together their otherwise disparate ouevre. But now we have True Grit, which is only the second time they have adapted a story that is not their own for the screen, and is a Western besides. This sounds an awful lot like their Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men, doesn’t it? It seems a bit contrived that the first time they decide to release a film so similar to something they’ve done in the past, it happens to be in the same genre as what was arguably their most successful movie. This ploy is made all the more glaring by the fact that the new film is being released at the height of awards season.
Of course True Grit also sounds like another film that the Coens didn’t direct—a 1969 release also called True Grit, which was the one and only film for which John Wayne won an Oscar. Both are based on Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, which concerns a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (played in the Coens’ version by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who hires a fat, drunk U.S. Marshall named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Wayne’s role in the original, Jeff Bridges here) to help her track down and kill a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, who was of course the lead in No Country), who killed her father.
While True Grit doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Coens’ best work, it is a thoroughly excellent film despite the somewhat suspicious nature of its existence. I’m almost sorry to say it, but if this was the Coens’ obvious attempt to recapture the success of No Country for Old Men, it kind of worked.
Steinfeld is being pushed in the Supporting Actress category, which is totally insulting, as this is obviously her film—she’s in nearly every scene. She’s great, too, and maybe the category switcheroo is due to the fact that Natalie Portman is basically a lock for Best Actress this year, whereas the Supporting Actress category is going to be much more of a race. At this point it looks like it’s going to be between Steinfeld and The Fighter’s Melissa Leo, with my vote going to Steinfeld. Brolin doesn’t have much to do, but Bridges is both better than Wayne in the 1969 version and better than he was last year in his Best Actor-winning Crazy Heart. Meanwhile, Matt Damon pops up and acts charmingly self-centered and goofy as LaBoeuf (which everyone pronounces right or wrong as ‘La Beef’), a Texas Ranger who gets enlisted by various people to help along the way.
And as has come to be expected, regardless the source novel or previously existing film, True Grit feels like a Coen brothers movie through and through, which I certainly mean as a compliment. I hope that they don’t make a habit of going back to the same well like this, but as long as the end result is as solid as True Grit, it’s hard to complain much. | Pete Timmermann

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