12/30/2010 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Coen Brothers' True Grit Lacks Substance

Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, the surly, whisky-soaked marshal played by Jeff Bridges in the new Coen Brothers movie True Grit, has many reasons for using his rifle. Among them are:

1) to defend himself
2) to make himself heard
3) to wound people
4) to kill people
5) to kill tired horses
6) to kill snakes in caves
7) to get his way in disagreements
8) to amuse himself while heavily intoxicated
9) to ambush groups of armed outlaws; and finally,
10) to prove how good he is at using his rifle.

Another actor playing a character this quick to fire might be scary on the screen--Bridges is not. Given the choice, he prefers to negotiate with a firearm, rather than talk; but when it comes to storytelling he's not shy. He enjoys whisky, cornbread, and pickled buffalo tongue, and likes to show off the way a child might. And like most Hollywood killers, Cogburn has principles: "I've never killed a man I didn't have to," he proudly tells his detractors.

"The Dude" on a mission: Jeff Bridges as Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn in True Grit

Rooster Cogburn--reckless, goofy, lazy, and often drunk--is an odd match for the fourteen-year-old girl who hires him to hunt down her father's killer. That girl, the shrewd and sassy Mattie Ross, played by a phenomenally-talented fourteen-year-old actress named Hailee Steinfeld, is an absolute pleasure to watch on screen. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission. And her interactions with Cogburn as the two pursue her father's killer are funny and genuine and charming, but they're not enough to build a meaningful relationship from--which is a shame, since this is the story the filmmakers want us to believe: how a tough but endangered young girl, in search of a father, came to care for a tough and smart but flawed old man. And vice versa.

Hailee Steinfeld, as the sharp-tongued 14-year-old hunting her father's killer, is incredibly compelling. But as the lonesome grown-up woman who narrates the movie, she is too reserved for empathy.

I say this is the story we are supposed to swallow because the ending sequence of the film (don't worry--no spoiler here) shows Mattie Ross as a grown woman, visiting Rooster Cogburn's grave over the years, bringing fresh flowers with her to keep his memory alive. We hear her admit that she never could quite "find the time to fool with marriage." But exactly why not remains annoyingly unclear.

True Grit is a unique, stylish, expertly-produced movie, and the dialogue--most of it taken straight from Charles Portis's classic novel of the same name--is a real treat. (People used to say things better with fewer words.) But the unlikely sappiness of the movie's ending is both confusing and disappointing. There isn't enough substance to provide real insight into the characters; the curious among us will have to keep looking.