For the past few months most Oscar pundits had the Coen brothers' remake of Henry Hathaway's Western True Grit high in their list of contenders for a best picture Oscar, without actually having seen the film.
No longer. After the first screenings last week, the movie which opens in the US on December 22 and here on January 26 has sharply polarised critics, with some not only ruling out its chances of major awards but also questioning whether it will appeal to mainstream audiences.
The advance hype may have unduly raised expectations because although the Coens' No Country for Old Men won four Oscars, for all their flair and creativity their movies have never delivered blockbuster numbers at the box office. (No Country is their highest earner in the US, grossing $74 million.)
And as some reviewers have pointed out, the original True Grit wasn't an action movie: the pace was slow and some of the acting hammy. I recently watched it on DVD and it's entertaining but no masterpiece.
The redo stars Jeff Bridges in the role made famous by John Wayne as the cantankerous, wily US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who's hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) to hunt down the outlaw Chaney (Josh Brolin) who killed her father. Matt Damon is the Texas Ranger La Boeuf (played originally by Glen Campbell, whose singing talents far exceeded his acting ability), who's also pursuing Chaney for murdering a Texas senator.
Perhaps its harshest critic thus far is Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells, who branded the movie a “cold and mannered 'art' western that matters not.” He reckons it belongs in the list of other Coen brothers misfires in The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Wells predicted, “It's stylistically polished, period authentic, 'good' as far as it goes, admirable in portions… and a clear example of solid authorial ownership. But it's going to die almost immediately when it opens.”
The Wrap's Steve Pond was a bit kinder but he noted the “brilliantly persuasive doomy finality dissolves abruptly into a goofiness that undercuts the resonance the movie might otherwise have.” He labelled it as a “light film that occasionally feels heavy,” a dichotomy which may mean it won't be taken seriously enough by Oscar voters to be a strong best pic contender.
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy questioned why the Coens drained almost all the humour from the original and the Charles Portis novel, arguing that makes the characters, especially Cogburn, less colourful; he forecast merely “decent mid-range business.”
Among the movie's cheerleaders, Scott Weinberg hailed it as a classic and the best Western since Unforgiven. Awards Daily's Sasha Stone declared True Grit lives up to its title but she believes the Coen's traditional fan base will be disappointed by the overt sentimentality.
As for Jeff Bridges' chances of winning Best Actor for a second consecutive year after Crazy Heart, the odds are against him: no one has ever won an Oscar in a remake that earned a gold statue for the original actor, in this case John Wayne.