The Coen Brothers remain two of the most influential directors of the past twenty years or so. Their mixture of dark comedy, memorable characters, and smart dialogue influencing a lot of the types of films that premiere at Sundance every year.
Recently with No Country For Old Men, they had a dark, modern take on a Western. It won them their first oscar, and remains their most ambitious and expansive piece.
True Grit, a remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, is a much more traditional take on the genre. Jeff Bridges plays an alcoholic ranger, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. He gets hired by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). She’s a young girl completely driven by the murder of her father by a thief known as Chaney. She hires Rooster on the condition she can go along with him and see the man responsible for the death of her father hanged.
Before she even starts her journey, she meets Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also on the trail of her father’s murder for crimes committed in his home state. The three do their best to follow the trail of Chaney through the harshness of the Choctaw terrain.
Within the film there are some great individual moments and scenes. Whether it’s seeing Mattie’s own grit in shrewdly dealing with a local businessman; the exchanges between Rooster and LeBoeuf; or the shoot-outs one normally associate with the genre; all these elements expertly handled and a pleasure to watch.
The problem I have is that I don’t understand why the Coens have made this film. The story is fine, but lacks the originality and flair of a lot their earlier films. The characters are memorable, but much less so than in films like The Big Lebowski or Fargo. Finally, the message of the film is unclear beyond the obvious need for justice, and the way some encounters we have we carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Perhaps I would be able to sing its praises more if it had not received such wide plaudits from critics everywhere. It seems as though the Coens have such high regard in Hollywood, that if they make a film that does nothing wrong, it is considered a masterpiece. My main problem with True Grit is that it feels too safe. It’s as though now the Coens have got their oscar they no longer feel the need to push any boundaries.
True Grit is a movie a lot of people will like, and maybe even love. My opinion, however, is that it is a movie easily forgotten; and when people talk about great Coens movies in ten years time, True Grit will be top of no one’s list.