After seeing the Coen brothers’ True Grit, I’m not sure if Charles Portis’ 1968 novel is filmable. In this instance, I define “filmable” as follows: that it is possible for a film adaptation to capture the effect of the written word. Many readers will be familiar with Portis’ popular novel; specifically, its wonderfully sharp dialogue, and the memorably systematic voice of Mattie Ross. This Coen brothers film does everything in its power to capture that spirit — it translates plenty of the novel’s dialogue word-for-word — and yet it still falls short. The film’s bookends (particularly the finale), both of which feature a voice-over of a much older Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel), come off as awkward and inert. Such is the case with most of the stuff in between as well.
The first voice-over lays out the plot: a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has shot and killed Frank Ross. He robbed his belongings too. Unfortunately for Chaney, Frank’s steadfast daughter Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) is more of a man than the guy he gunned down. Her first order of business after seeing to Frank’s burial rights is to approach the trigger-happy U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down Chaney. To get the money for Rooster’s services, Mattie threatens Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) with legal prosecution if he doesn’t let her exchange the ponies Frank bought before he died.
A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) comes into play during Mattie’s stay at the Monarch Boardinghouse. He informs the girl that Chaney, who has more than a few aliases, is also wanted in Texas for about a dozen things. But Mattie wants Chaney to hang for her father’s death, not for some petty crimes he committed in Texas — like the death of a senator.
If the story sounds straightforward, that’s because it is. There aren’t any twists, turns, or sidesteps. This is a story that will end either one of two ways: with Chaney’s death or with his escape. But whereas the novel’s attributes are able to overcome this simplicity, the film falls short. The Coen brothers picked the wrong time to dial down their filmmaking gears. This is a story that needs their craftsmanship to resonate or, at the very least, take on an identity of its own.
The performances are fine, but sympathy for the characters is hard to come by. Most of the time, it’s a chore to comprehend Jeff Bridges, whose submerged, whiskey-ridden growl crackles with each word. But, still, you wouldn’t really want anyone else in the role. Matt Damon enters into some unusual comic territory with his performance, and it’s entertaining. As Mattie, the newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is impressively adept at holding her own in verbal battles with Bridges, Damon, and company.
What the characters lack, especially Rooster or LaBoeuf, is a reason to care for their survival. What the villain lacks, because Brolin’s Chaney is hardly in the film, is a reason to want to see him dead. Sure, he killed an innocent man, but it’s not as if Mattie’s unshakable desire for vengeance is shared by the viewer. From the beginning, this journey feels like a long one with very little emotional reward ahead.
It’s hard to pinpoint who was at fault. The most obvious culprits would be the Coen brothers, who evidently chose the wrong material to approach with simplicity. The cinematography of Roger Deakins is not as awe-inspiring as one might have expected, though it’s not exactly a problem. Carter Burwell’s hymn-inspired score, however, is overly-sentimental, notably during a near-closing rescue sequence filled with overtly cheap reaction shots.
Some may come out of True Grit embracing the lack of complexity. I wish I could feel the same way. I love the idea of a pair of auteurs taking a step back and letting a film take on a life of its own. But instead of capturing that loving authenticity, the film ultimately just falls flat. Call it a noble misfire.
For spoiler-related discussion of True Grit, visit the Forums. All other comments can be left below.