The Grit That Wasn’t There

12/22/2010 4:00 AM |

True Grit

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Charles Portis’s 1968 True Grit is classic faux naïveté, dime novel prose (“I am certainly done for!“) as narrated by a unique creation in American literature: punctilious Mattie Ross, a Presbyterian spinster looking back on her quest as a precocious fourteen-year-old to avenge her father’s murder in anarchic post-Civil War Arkansas and Oklahoma. That Joel and Ethan Coen would adapt the book (after the less faithful 1969 John Wayne version) comes as little surprise, their own work affecting through intellectual pranksterism a similar artless, colloquial eccentricity. Ideally, True Grit should be wheelhouse material, a perfect opportunity for the brothers to directly take on the “old, weird America” that has informed their films no matter when and where they’ve taken place.

Instead True Grit Coen-style comes across as a passive exercise, not nearly as immersive and intense as it should be. That it falls short while offering Roger Deakins’s glorious widescreen cinematography (producing colorful second-tier Southern towns and treacherously majestic mountain landscapes), as well as performances by Jeff Bridges (as tottering, crusty, and possibly notorious marshal-for-hire Rooster Cogburn) and Matt Damon (as pompous partner/rival Texas Ranger La Boeuf) that live up to their near-mythic characters, speaks volumes about the high level at which the Coens operate. But in focusing their energies on Portis’s
frontier realism and peculiar mix of down-home and hifalutin dialogue they’ve also run into problems they may not have anticipated.

A major one is that of voice. In Portis’s novel Mattie (played in the film by Hailee Steinfeld) peppers her story with humorous tangents encompassing local folklore, survival tactics, and religious homilies, the last especially important in connecting her commanding, youthful stubbornness to the pious, rigid old maid she becomes. This is mostly lost in the Coens’ adaptation, which wisely limits voiceover yet fails to find an appropriate substitute by which we might better see through Mattie’s eyes, a surprising disappointment considering the brothers’ consistent success with unusual points of view, from Nic Cage’s contemplative outlaw yokel in Raising Arizona to Billy Bob Thornton’s fatalistic, deadpan barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Historical context minimized (references to William Quantrill and Frank James pass with the breeze), odd details glossed (save the addition of a strange, heavily bearded traveler in a bearskin), and biblical overtones compensated for by overwhelmingly orchestrated Christian traditionals, True Grit has been unintentionally stripped of its idiosyncratic personality and preoccupations.

What’s left is everything the few opponents of No Country for Old Men claimed made that film the Coens’ least intrepid effort. Also structured as a pursuit, No Country used its source text for eerily tense effect, its unresolved portentousness spilling over into a pair of bitterly and brilliantly satiric follow-ups concerning moral chaos; True Grit is instead a polite prestige picture, a mildly evocative adventure story that filters out the untidy depictions of humanity and unsettling flashes of mischief essential in making the Coens so playful, disturbing, and impervious to simple consumption. Mattie’s journey into adulthood and Cogburn’s grasp at redemption thus register as generalities, even if poignant. We expect more from Joel and Ethan, something we can’t name since only they could come up with it.

Opens December 22