I can’t speak to whether the Coen brothers’ TRUE GRIT is as faithful to the book as they claim, but if it is I’d be interested to see how author Charles Portis handles a grueling revenge story brought to a not so thrilling end followed by an abrupt 25-year flash forward and a less than satisfying conclusion. Despite great performances from the five lead actors and the efforts of two of the best filmmakers working today, this version of TRUE GRIT lacks the heart at the core of the 1969 film adaptation, not to mention the gratification an audience is due when the object of a burning revenge is shot dead.
Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is said object and 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) will stop at nothing until he’s dead or in jail. Newcomer Steinfeld plays Mattie with such confidence and chutzpah that her diehard energy is largely relied upon to carry the film. That’s not to say that Matt Damon doesn’t give a pitch-perfect performance as LaBoeuf, the inflated Texas Ranger, or that Jeff Bridges isn’t a shoe-in for Rooster Cogburn, the role John Wayne made famous over forty years ago. It’s not to say that Barry Pepper isn’t compelling as the hard-as-nails, flinty-eyed Lucky Ned Pepper or that Josh Brolin doesn’t yet again prove his adaptability as an actor by embodying the whining, yellow-bellied Chaney with such conviction that you actually forget for a minute that he’s Josh Brolin.
So why is it so underwhelming when Mattie finally shoots him? For starters, LaBoeuf’s frequent decisions to break ties with Mattie and Rooster and pursue Chaney on his own followed by his often fortuitous appearances at their side at the precise moment that danger is imminent is distracting and so improbable that it almost becomes a goofy gag. Secondly, is it wrong to expect just a tad more bonding between Mattie and Rooster? I’m not asking for a full-on textbook father/daughter moment, but until Rooster heroically rescues her at the end, it seems as though he’s only looking out for himself. The rescue, though touching and amazing, frankly, is too little, too late. Even so, instead of seeing their reunion after she recovers, we get pushed 25 years ahead in time when Mattie is a cold, emotionally withdrawn spinster, a far cry from the rambunctious, rough-and-tumble young girl we’ve been rooting for. It’s a let-down, seeing what she’s become, – almost as big a disappointment as the way the final moment of revenge plays out. What is supposed to be the pinnacle of the story has all the emotional build up of a fully blown balloon, but instead of one loud pop it’s slowly deflated until all the air is gone.