True Grit: The Coen Brothers rob the grave
It’s an indication of the kind of middling year it’s been for movies when a solid but not especially outstanding picture such as True Grit is touted as Oscar material or winds up on Best Ten lists. Heck, it might even end up on mine. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but True Grit displays the hallmarks of classic genre filmmaking. From its scrupulous adaptation of the Charles Portis novel—with authentic dialogue intact—to its slow-build story, idiosyncratic character development, and final climactic shootout, watching the movie is as close as we may ever come these days to recreating what was once a cherished moviegoing ritual in America: the Saturday matinee. At least it was a ritual for me.
I saw the original True Grit with my mother at a Tacoma theater when I was 11, and even though I was aware that Glen Campbell couldn’t act his way out of a guitar case, and that Kim Darby was more scary than stroppy, and that John Wayne was going to win an Oscar simply by wearing a patch of fabric over his eye, the film was still immensely enjoyable, a certified popcorn movie. The Coen Brothers real achievement with their remake is that they’ve suppressed any urge to make fun of this classic oater. In fact, they’ve muddied the milieu a bit, with bloodier shootouts, grimier costumes, and more toothless baddies. The villains here are not only dentally but also mentally challenged. They are dumber than dirt, really, which makes them a relatively easy catch for Rooster, Mattie, and the Texas Ranger.
Jeff Bridges won’t win an Oscar for his one-eyed Cogburn. But he’d have a shot at it if he hadn’t won last year for Crazy Heart. The actor is at the very top of his game. Watching him spar with the delightful newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, or trade insults with Matt Damon’s supercilious Ranger, or engage in a high-English debate with the ringleader Ned Pepper—played by the actor Barry Pepper, one of the few in-jokes the Coens allow themselves—is to understand how the right casting can elevate a genre throwaway into a marvel of well-crafted, professional moviemaking.
I guess it says something about we’ve come to expect from our American movie landscape when a simple B-movie matinee throwback evokes critical plaudits and a flood of audience love, as if we’re surprised to realize that satisfying entertainment can still be wrung from a classic formula of directorial economy: solid story plus real locations divided by great acting and minus digitally created claptrap equals a pretty darn good time at the movies.