MOVIE REVIEW: Coens go mainstream with 'Grit,' but that's not a bad thing

From left, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, Matt Damon plays LaBeouf and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.” 

From left, Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, Matt Damon plays LaBeouf and Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.” 

True Grit (PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Despite delivering a steady stream of mostly profitable movies, winning three Oscars and the fawning praise of virtually every critic in the world, filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have yet to be fully embraced by most audiences — and they couldn’t care less.

With the possible exception of “Raising Arizona,” “True Grit” is about as close to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing movie that the Coens have ever made. The only thing they’ve said regarding this movie is that it’s not a remake of the 1969 original starring John Wayne, but a more faithful adaptation of the 1968 novel by Charles Portis.

For dyed-in-the-wool Coen fans, the movie is a double-edged sword. Of course it’s well-written, impeccably photographed and superbly acted, but carries with it none of their signature stamps or bizarrely quirky asides. If you didn’t know it was a Coen movie going in, you wouldn’t be able to identify it by anything shown on the screen. The film could’ve been directed (and written) by any number of talented filmmakers.

One big gamble the Coens took (which pays off well) is the casting of first-timer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a young teen girl wise beyond her years who is determined to avenge the murder of her father. With a sturdy command of English, the drive of a prosecuting attorney and a horse trader’s ability to strike deals, Mattie serves notice up to every adult man she meets that she’s not to be trifled with.

Knowing she can’t complete her task alone, Mattie hires the disheveled and frequently drunk Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a U.S. Marshal with a spotty past and little regard for the law. At about the same time Mattie and Rooster make their iffy deal, Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) arrives on the scene announcing he’s looking for the same man as Mattie for the murder of a U.S. Senator years earlier. LaBeouf offers Cogburn way more money than Mattie in the hopes he’ll ditch her, but with no luck. Cogburn is many things but he draws the line at stealing from a child or going back on his word.

What LaBeouf can’t fathom (at least initially) is that Mattie just doesn’t want her father’s murderer dead — she wants to be the one to do the deed. Refusing to allow a precocious girl telling him what’s what or possibly gumming up the works, LaBeouf heads out on his own, thus reducing the groups’ already spotty chances of success.

Far more serious and economic than its so-so predecessor, this “True Grit” is eminently watchable and delivers its fair share of surprises and twists but also carries with it an unmistakable air of haughty self-importance.

Determined to stick as close as possible to Portis’ book and the era (the 1880s), the Coens’ craft dense thickets of arcane dialogue which come off terribly affected and showy. Mattie speaks with a ridged and rhythmic cadence akin to that of a Marine drill sergeant. When not mumbling, Bridges swallows his words before they escape his lips and Damon’s ranger is more of a stuffy New England aristocrat than lawman and former Confederate soldier. In typical Coen fashion, everyone speaks very fast and words that probably mean a lot get lost.

To their credit, the Coens have the final few scenes play out with a minimum amount of dialogue and present one of the most unusual gunfight sequences in the history of westerns. It’s awkward but purposefully so and feels far more authentic and organic than everything that precedes it. (Paramount)