They plead it’s not a remake of the John Wayne Oscar-winner. Pity, as their version misfires when it departs from the book and the film. Fourteen year old Mattie Ross, the precocious, sparky daughter of a murdered man hires a cussed marshal - Rooster Cogburn - to track down the killer because, she hears, he has true grit.
Along with effete Texas Ranger Leboeuf, Mattie seeks to bring the killer Tom Chaney to justice. But Chaney’s thrown in his lot with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang. It’s going to take a lot of grit to bring them in – or down.
The Coens are renowned for quirky takes on cruelty and sudden death. At their best – Fargo, Blood Simple – they wring a larger-than-life poeticism from brutish deeds. Shaggy dog stories of dark comedy – The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink – contain a queasy unease. Burn After Reading laces the laughter with cyanide. And No Country For Old Men was a western of sorts, but a cold-blooded tragedy foremost. No wonder True Grit is a death’s head of a movie.
Keeping close to the novel, the Coens can’t twist the knife at sudden moments. Rather, they intrude scenes of arch oddity. A fellow traveller dresses in bear fur, the bear’s head intact above his own. A man hangs high, birds pecking out his eye, his body loosed to a bonecrunching fall.
Opening with Mattie’s voiceover, her father lying dead and alone in the wintry dark, the brothers deftly set their tone. Collecting his body, Mattie sleeps in the undertaker’s parlour. Rooster, the burly, gruff-voiced reprobate, seems to carry the weight of the men he’s killed. And Mattie’s monologues, book-ending the film, are like funeral orations.
Wayne’s movie shone like the sun and bruised like a stone. His grit was a source of triumph, bonding and stability. Here the sober styling forgets about the grit and saps the humanity. If it leaves a mark, it’s like a headstone. A memorial to life, not life itself.
Praise be for the 14 year old actress Hailee Steinfeld, who handles the language and the burden of the film with startling confidence. Jeff Bridges’ imposing physicality is perfect for the role of Rooster, his delivery less so, a rumbling drawl that’s hard to catch and wastes Portis’ words. But Matt Damon quietly impresses as the vain Texan ‘Lebeef’.
Roger Deakins fills the screen with beautiful images. The brothers’ go-to-guy for most of their films, he’s shot everything that’s looked good over the past 15 years - The Shawshank Redemption, The Assassination of Jesse James, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, A Single Man. Most of Wayne’s movie – and the Coens’ – comes from the novel. But while Henry Hathaway directed The Duke to the famous, exhilarating climax, the Coens’ retread of the same scene is surprisingly empty. No excitement, no emotion, no grit.