The Coen Brothers seem to like prologues. If I remember correctly, A Serious Man, which was out at this time last year and justifiably earned various nominations for the brothers and the film’s star, Michael Stuhlbarg, began with a tale of a dybuk. In their adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel True Grit (in press appearances, they and their stars have made clear this is an adaptation of the novel, not a remake of the John Wayne movie) they begin by quoting Proverbs: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth, Proverbs 28:1” appears on screen. Then the movie begins. What I found interesting (and I didn’t know this at the time - I had to look it up) was that the rest of that Proverbs quote is really what the movie is all about: “But righteous are bold as a lion.”
14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is our guide through the West. Her daddy was killed by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and Mattie wants revenge. The “eye for an eye” kind of revenge. She asks a law man to pursue the wicked man; he declines, saying Chaney isn’t too high on the most wanted list. The man suggest three US Marshals who, for a price, might be willing to help Mattie avenge her father’s death. Being a precocious, plucky youth, Mattie enlists Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), described as equally effective and ornery - a man with, wait for it, true grit. Along the way, Rooster and Mattie cross the path of La Boeuf (pronounced La Beef and played by Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who is also after Chaney over the murder of a Texas senator. At the movie’s climax, Mattie comes face to face with Chaney and the bold lioness must take her shot. The falling action (literally - she falls down a crevasse) then wraps up the story, once justice has been served.
I have no idea how faithful Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit is to the novel or what similarities it shares with its celluloid predecessor, but it’s a good movie, with Coen-trademark dark humor and careful and plush cinematography. There are also good performances from all: Jeff Bridges is both funny and assured as an aging, overweight, one-eyed Marshal; Matt Damon seems to be having a blast in a funny supporting role; and Hailee Stenfeld gives a breakout performances as the headstrong, righteous and determined Mattie.
But all of this combines for just a good movie - not a great one, in my mind. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations so I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I’ve never particularly disliked the Coen brothers’ films, though, for the most part, I’ve never loved - to the point of gushing - them, either. I totally dig The Big Lebowski, though it took a couple of tries, probably because I was too young when I saw it the first time. I liked A Serious Man, found No Country for Old Men engrossing, appreciated Fargo and found Burn After Reading to be just kind of eh. (A couple seasons ago, Ethan Coen presented Offices, a slate of three one-acts at the Atlantic. They were smart, slightly bleak and characteristically darkly humorous. What seemed to work best about them was that each one-act was brief, so Coen could make his point and move on, rather than he and his brother having to fill up 90-120 minutes with plot and character development.)
I mention this to give you, dear readers, some context as to my reaction. If you’re a Coen brothers fanatic then this may be the perfect swig of whiskey for you. If you like watching great performances - even brief ones - by some of your favorite actors, then you might like this. For my taste, True Grit was a mostly enjoyable way to pass some time (except for a scene with snakes. Like Indy, I hate snakes.) but not something I can enthusiastically recommend.