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A Woman, a Gun and Some Noodling Around

True Grit (2010)

Lorey Sebastian/Paramount Pictures

In “True Grit,” the Coen brothers play it straight. The masters of caustic pastiche and razor-sharp observational cinema return to the western, but not with the tension of “Blood Simple” or the existential weirdness of “No Country for Old Men.” Instead, their adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel (and not, it must be stressed, the 1969 Academy Award-winning John Wayne vehicle) is largely a return to the genre’s classical form.

The elements for a success — albeit not of the sort one typically expects from the Coens — are there: sharp banter, flawed lawmen and the imposingly beautiful Roger Deakins-helmed images of characters set against the endless Arkansas countryside (actually Texas). In true Coen fashion, a classic is repeatedly evoked: “The Night of the Hunter,” in the haunting rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” on the soundtrack, the tableau of figures facing an unknown, tangible terror and the ways pockets and bursts of light illuminate the characters’ burdened faces.

Yet in spite of all the movie does right, it succumbs to a pervasive rote quality that latches onto the journey of United States Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who has hired the former to avenge the murder of her father.

Their voyage through Choctaw Nation in pursuit of Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) offers ample opportunity for exquisite long, wide shots of expansive mountains, characters traveling through a gentle snowfall and violent confrontations in valleys below cliffs. Cogburn, LaBoeuf and Mattie bicker, bond and begin to develop the sort of intense, transcendent understanding that emerges between individuals faced with the proverbial vast emptiness of death, a common Coen preoccupation.

However, in taking the characters into this lawless natural terrain, the filmmakers effectively remove them from the uncertain post-Civil War milieu they inhabit at the film’s start and into a sort of timeless environment predicated on gunfights, camp fires, chases on horseback and the proverbial clash between good, decent men (and — in this case — a teen girl) and their counterparts.

There’s a deliberate, straight-edge methodology to these scenes. The Coens center them not on their spiritual heart but on the details of the pursuit of Chaney, the arch, superficial comic banter between the protagonists and the sort of “Odyssey”-lite collection of local fauna that the filmmakers assembled to much greater effect in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

“True Grit” is never funny enough or tense enough for the approach to work. The humor is found in Mr. Bridges’s misguided approach to Cogburn, playing him as an indecipherable drunkard, and the character’s sniping about Texas versus Arkansas boys, etc., with Mr. Damon’s better-conceived egotistical LaBoeuf. The search for Chaney is secondary to the squabbling and as such — despite the best efforts of newcomer Hailee Steinfeld — never takes on the urgency that should accompany the pursuit. The danger of such an ambitious sojourn through lawless territory is submerged by its overarching one-dimensionality, the bad guy’s overall lack of screen time and the concurrent downgrading of the proceedings from a life-or-death struggle to a fun adventure for the trio.

With the exception of an epilogue that opens up the narrative to larger, contextual historic currents, a pervasive narrowness eats away at “True Grit.” To be clear, there’s no mandate that every modern western be revisionist; it’s possible to make a film that celebrates the classical form as it’s always been. The Coens, though, have made careers out of slyly subverting and expanding the genres they take on. Dial that back and you’re left with an inherent disappointment, however skillfully made.


Opens on Dec. 22 in the United States and on Feb. 11, 2011 in Britain.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Roderick Jaynes; music by Carter Burwell; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Mary Zophres; produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie).


This review is spot on. The bad guys just show up out of pure chance. I wish they had more screen time. Lucky Ned Peppers seems like he would have been an interesting character to develop.

Actually, if I had a "bad" review like this, I wouldn't feel that bad. Mr. Levin mostly refrains from interjecting his own personal prejudices (something other reviewers took delight in doing) and pretty much called it as he saw it.

It seems to me that his disappointment was more in what he thought the Coens would do, but didn't.

Even though I didn't agree with most of his take on this film, I would read his reviews again.

I do not agree with this review, because if you stop analyzing every little detail, I saw the film as very entertaining and having very well developed characters. Also, Nate, the fault that you see with this movie is in the story, which the Coen Brothers DID NOT write. They adapted this film from the book, and I think it was important to give less time to the bad characters because it is more of a character study than an epic tale. A moral study of different people from different lives, a drunkard, a studied girl, and an egotistical lawman, all going after this man for different reasons, yet coming away with a single lesson at the end. What confused and disappointed me most was the seemingly sudden end to the movie and the short epilogue, but as far as I can tell, the Coen Brothers carried out the story to their best ability, and with a fine cast whose characters were darker, yet completely believable, and beautiful visuals with a good flow.

this review is on the nose pretty much. the original movie is much better. i was very disappointed in what could have been a great re-make.

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