The trailer for “True Grit,” the Coen Brothers retooling of the John Wayne classic—let’s call it “New Grit”—is atmospheric and dark, a feeling underscored by the choice of music, Johnny Cash’s wonderfully stark “God’s Gonna Cut You Down.” It feels very much like “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood’s chilling study of morality in the old West, but don’t be fooled. While it may share some of the themes with Eastwood’s classic—like retribution and honor—it plays much differently.
In this adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit,” spirited fourteen year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) seeks revenge on Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who gunned down her father. When the local sheriff declines help she hires a gruff U.S. Marshall named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down and murder… er, capture Chaney. Preferably, for Mattie, the former. “I never shot anyone I didn’t have to,” he says, explaining his methods. Along for the ride is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who watches the growing relationship between his two manhunt trail mates and suggests that Cogburn has gone from “marauder to wet nurse.”
“True Grit” feels like lesser Coen Brothers. Luckily lesser work from the Bros is still better than almost everything else, but despite the cast—Jeff Bridges in his Oscar follow-up role, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin—this isn’t a classic. It is a simple story of reprisal but without the nuance you’d expect from the makers of “No Country for Old Men.” It’s an old fashioned action adventure film—there’s even some slapstick comedy!—an entertaining one, but nonetheless, very little more than that.
Bridges is solid as the crotchety Cogburn, although he seems to have taken diction lessons from Keith Richards by way of Tom Waits. Damon is getting some early Oscar buzz but the performance to look out for belongs to Hailee Steinfeld. The almost unknown actress—she just has a handful of credits on her IMDB listing—is in almost every scene and redefines plucky. She delivers some very wordy dialogue—apparently in the old west even marauders spoke like Victorians—but beyond the technical aspect of the performance, is utterly believable as the headstrong girl who isn’t afraid to throw her weight around to get what she wants. Charming.
“True Grit” is a western in the classic style, and will be suited to most members of the family (although I have a feeling that the Jeff Bridges movie most teenage boys are going to see this holiday season will be “Tron: Legacy”), it just isn’t a classic.