Coen Brothers’ ‘True Grit’ Is True, Gritty … and Goofy

A fine film but not a game-changer, “True Grit” is dark, moody and dramatic — and then it veers into broad comedy

It's good. Sometimes it's damn good.

But it's not a game-changer.

Joel and Ethan Coen's "True Grit" was unveiled very quietly last week and more openly this week, and the embargo on reviews and reactions was lifted on Wednesday morning.

Which means that I can now say that the Coens' version of the Charles Portis novel is better than the 1969 John Wayne movie made from the same book.

Jeff Bridges and Hailee SteinfeldIt's dark and moody, with a wonderful performance by Jeff Bridges as indomitable but frequently-soused Marshall Rooster Cogburn — the role that won Wayne an Oscar — and a terrific turn by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as a headstrong teenage girl out to avenge her father's death.

It's also funny, and not always in that dark, twisted Coen-black-humor kind of way. Long stretches of it are so slapsticky that I could see Paramount submitting it to the Golden Globes in the Comedy or Musical category.

Some actors, particularly Josh Brolin as the villainous (but apparently moronic) Tom Chaney, are so cartoonish that they seem to have dropped in from an entirely different Coen Brothers movie, from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" or "Burn After Reading."

As we've seen in "No Country for Old Men," bad men in stark landscapes can bring out the best in the Coens – and the material provides a rich canvas of vengeance and righteousness, moral rectitude facing off against dissolute excess, all of it captured by the remarkable eye of Roger Deakins.  

But there's also a tonal battle going on here, as the film's brilliantly persuasive doomy finality dissolves abruptly into a goofiness that undercuts the resonance the movie might otherwise have.

It's a light film that occasionally feels heavy — and while that is no doubt exactly what the Coens intended, it may well keep "True Grit" from being taken seriously enough by Oscar voters to become the strong Best Picture contender that some had predicted.

I'm saying this without seeing any other reviews, without knowing what the box-office numbers will be, and without having the experience of viewing the movie with an audience larger than 10. In this vacuum of sorts, though, "True Grit" strikes me as a solid, expert piece of entertainment with a dark Coen underbelly, but not the kind of knockout that'll be the last film standing.

And that shouldn't be surprising, given the source material. One thing I don’t get is the number of outraged recent tweets and blog posts that treat the original "True Grit" as sacred ground, and take the Coens to task for daring to despoil a Western masterpiece with their new-fangled sensibility.

Look, the original novel was a wonderfully-crafted page-turner with a few indelible characters, worthy of a screen adaptation but hardly deserving of canonization.

And the first movie was a popcorn flick, nothing more. It was fun, and a bit campy, and entertaining enough, though it definitely hasn't aged well. The idea that it is somehow sacrosanct is just plain foolish. 

Wayne's was a deliciously over-the-top performance that was lots of fun, but he had no business beating Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight for "Midnight Cowboy" that year. Bridges' is – guess what? – a deliciously over-the-top performance that is lots of fun, but he has no business beating Colin Firth or James Franco this year.

(Thank goodness that Bridges won for last year's "Crazy Heart," absolving Academy voters of any responsibility to do for Jeff what they did for John when they turned the Duke's "True Grit" Oscar into a de facto lifetime-achievement award for the then-ailing icon.)

It'll get nominations, and it deserves them. (Acting, cinematography, Best Picture and more are all definitely in play.) What it won't do, at least to these eyes, is shake up the race in any real way. I'm guessing that Paramount's other December movie, "The Fighter," has a better chance to do that.

And now I need to watch it again, to see if I still feel that way the second time around. One dismisses the Coens, after all, at one's own peril.

Other voices:

Anne Thompson: "The Coens are at the top of their game … The southwest vistas are stunning, the production details authentic, the costumes wittily on the mark … The December 22 wide release may work for older filmgoers and a holiday family crowd. But the film’s archaic, formal style and florid period language, which will be admired by the Academy’s writing branch, may prove too formidable a barrier to a mass audience."

Kris Tapley: "[A]classic western cut from traditional cloth … It’s a warm and welcome addition to a vital genre that couldn’t ask for better torch bearers than the Coens and producer Scott Rudin, and one can only hope it helps keep the embers stoked on an art form consistently endangered."

Sasha Stone: "I was genuinely moved by 'True Grit.'  Both by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld’s performances, but also by the way the Coens went there, without fear or hesitation.  Of all of the American-born filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen continue to grow as they tell stories – revealing pieces of themselves to their audiences."

Erik Davis: "A tight, concise Western that pays more homage than it does re-invent the genre, 'True Grit' isn't quite the masterpiece some were expecting, but it's so much fun to watch that many will leave the theater thirsting for more … of everything."

Drew McWeeny: "[O]ne of the most crowd-pleasing films I think the Coens have ever made, accessible and simple and mythic and beautiful, and like the best Westerns, it contains a sadness that is innate to the period."

Devin Faraci: "This is a rich, vibrant movie, one that you can slip inside of and live within for two hours … The Coens don’t need to reinvent or deconstruct the Western. This isn’t a 21st century take on anything, it’s just a damn good Western story told damn well."

Scott Feinberg doesn't really review the movie, but he calls it a classic, says it's the best Western since "Unforgiven," and predicts nominations for cinematographer Roger Deakins and actors Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Seinfeld. In fact, he thinks Steinfeld will win.