There are few if any filmmakers with austere rock-star chops like Joel and Ethan Coen, but you can’t call a movie a home run just because it’s smartly assembled. Craft only gets you so far. The film has to be about something that matters to many if not most people. And I am telling you that True Grit, while beautifully made with some deliciously formal old-west dialogue (much of it straight from the Charles Portis novel, I gather) and a smart, spunky debut performance from Hallie Steinfeld, is essentially a cold and mannered “art” western that matters not.

Every now and then the Coens, despite their immense talent and heavy-osity, drop the clay jug on the kitchen floor. True Grit has now joined The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy and (I know this is a minority opinion) O Brother, Where Art Thou? on the list of wrong-turners.

There’s one exceptional scene in the beginning — a bargaining scene about money and stolen horses — between Steinfeld and Dakin Matthews that’s pretty close to superb. For my money Matthews delivers True Grit‘s best male performance, hands down.

I’d be willing to argue with fans of this film, but not all that passionately. It’s indisputably solid and grade-A as far as those attributes go, but all it seems to say is “yep, life in the Old West was harsh and brutal, all right, but people of sand and character stood up and demanded that evil-doers be captured and punished, and 14 year-old Mattie Ross ” — i.e., Steinfeld’s character — “was surely one of these.” Yeah….and?

And nothing. People of serious moral fibre sometimes get hurt or even killed in trying to see justice done, and drunks will always be drunks, and the evil-doer sometimes is just a bearded dog-like degenerate, and a whole lotta fellers wind up gettin’ shot and maimed and sometimes their bodies aren’t even buried — they just lie there and rot. And the living get older and come back to the scene of the adventure, to so speak, and are told that a guy who was old and fat to begin with has “moved on,” so to speak

Mattie hires the renowned Ruben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, gravel-voiced, beer-bellied bounty hunter, to hunt down her father’s killer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Cogburn naturally tries to keep her from joining the hunt but is eventually won over by Mattie’s moxie. They’re joined by a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who’s also after Chaney for murdering a Texas senator, and lah-dee-lah-lah-lahh. I’m sorry but I knew where it was going and I didn’t much care, and Bridges’ affected gravel-gut voice felt annoying.

I know that Henry Hathaway‘s 1969 version with John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glenn Campbell went with a more upbeat storyline and that the Coens have stuck quite closely to the Portis novel, downbeat ending and all (and added a flash-forward ending, I think). And I’m sitting there in the screening room going, “Uhhm…okay. Gritty stuff, you bet. But can someone tell me what this is supposed to mean to a fella like myself? ‘Cause I don’t get it.”

The Coens are obviously cream-of-the-crop fellows but I didn’t care. Yes, I love the dialogue and don’t want to see Steinfeld get hurt but other than that, I just don’t give a hang about any of it. It has a certain historical charm and color but it feels too dry and cold, and it’s nowhere near as amusing as I’d heard it would be. Yes, Marshall Cogburn shows some sand of his own at the end and does a fine and noble thing, and I just sat there and looked at my watch and said, “Okay, things are wrapping up.”

You want funny? Javier Bardem‘s Anton Chigurh was a barrel of monkeys compared to Bridges, Damon and Brolin. I’m serious. Bardem was my idea of funny here and there. That scene in the little gas station with the terrified older man and the quarter? Odd and creepy and yet darkly funny at the same time? There’s nothing in True Grit that comes remotely close to that scene.

Watching a drunken old lardbucket try to shoot stuff in the air and miss…what is that?

It’ll be fine with me if True Grit lands one of the ten Best Picture nominations. The combined rep of the True Grit team — the Coens, producer Scott Rudin, costars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin — could rope that steer and bring it to market. But if this material was made by unknowns, I doubt anyone would notice. Well, maybe.

Here’s how I put it yesterday in an email to a friend: “True Grit obviously deserves respect, but it’s a problem. It’s stylistically polished, period authentic, ‘good’ as far as it goes, admirable in portions (there’s a nighttime showdown between Damon and three or four guys on horseback that’s quite brilliant), and a clear example of absolute authorial ownership. But it’s going to die almost immediately when it opens.

“Superb chops just ain’t enough. No Country for Old Men was about a kind of alien poison and madness taking root in the country. A Serious Man said God doesn’t care about your happiness or well-being. True Grit says that life was tough and gnarly in the Old West. Big deal. It’s just a purely rendered, dialogue-eloquent, very realistic, warts-and-all adaptation of the Portis novel with a whole lotta corpses and guys gettin’ all shot up. It’s an artistic exercise piece about harsh and rugged and sometimes grisly events amounting to…what?

“Kick it to the curb, I say. I don’t need it, want it…it’s very good, very high-level, and I don’t give a damn about anyone or anything in it except for Hallie. And Dakin Matthews, who’s perfect.

“What was that gravel-gut voice Bridges was using? I figured he had to use another voice or he’d sound too much like the boozy country-singer he played and won the Oscar for in Crazy Heart. So he borrowed a little Wallace Beery in Jackass Mail and a little Nick Nolte in 48 HRS. and came up with an old snarly gunslinger voice. No interest. You can have him.”