Ordinarily, one does not use the phrases "pretty damn great" and "crushing disappointment" in close tandem in a film review - yet here comes <True Grit, the fifteenth feature written and directed by everyone's favorite Minnesotan brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen; their first honest-to-God Western in a career that has consisted of almost nothing but exploring classic genres with modern filmmaking techniques; the reunification of the Coens with Jeff Bridges, who gave one of the best performances in any of their films as The Dude in The Big Lebowski, 12 years ago; and it is pretty damn great. It also comes after a run of three films since 2007 - No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man - that are, by my lights anyway, stone-cold fucking masterpieces,* and "pretty damn great", next to "stone-cold fucking masterpiece", is a whole lot less impressive, particularly for a film that I'd been counting on since September to redeem what has been, on the whole, the least impressive year for American cinema since I've begun paying attention to such things.

The problem lies not in the craft - for a Coen film, if it is not a masterpiece of tight craftsmanship, is less a disappointment and more a sign of the impending apocalypse - nor in the performances, nor in the humor, which calls back to the "classic" era of the brothers, if we may identify such a period, far more than any of their recent work; the problem is that there doesn't seem to be any specially urgent reason for the Coens to have made this film at all: it solves no problem, breaks no new ground, explores no new vistas even in the way that their ghastly 2004 hatchet job The Ladykillers managed to. Frankly, it bears the mark of filmmakers who need to take some time off to recharge their batteries after a stunning but no-doubt exhausting run of creativity. Consider: not only have they never before made four films in four consecutive years, prior to 2009 they'd never made three films in three consecutive years.

Setting that briefly aside: True Grit, the classic movie fans around you will quickly notice, is a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne. Or a "new interpretation" of the source novel by Charles Portis, though I have my doubts that a fairly obscure 42-year-old pulp novel would have interested much of anybody without the significantly-less-obscure film preening with its place in film history forever secured thanks providing Wayne with his only acting Oscar. That said, there's a pretty huge gulf separating the True Grits, despite virtually identical storylines down to some pretty small details. It's not much worth comparing the two, though if I were to do so, I'd readily give the upper hand to the Coens, given that Henry Hathaway's original has always struck me as being pretty minor Wayne, and I can't help but think we'd all be better off if the Academy had trusted that he wouldn't die of cancer right away, so they could give him that Oscar for a much better performance in a much better film, Don Siegel's The Shootist from 1976. But here I am, a-tangenting.

The chiefest narrative change in the new True Grit is that it shifts the focus back towards the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl chasing down the outlaw who killed her father. Jaded beyond her years, Mattie has given up on the law finding the notorious Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), gone to ground in the Indian territories, and so searches with terrifying single-mindedness for anyone who can aid her; thus she is set in the path of crude, borderline-psychopathic U.S. Marshall Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges), choosing him largely because she expects that he will show Chaney the least mercy of anyone who she might hire. Amused by the girl's willfulness and impressed by the efficacy with which she can raise money, Cogburn takes the job; Mattie insists on tagging along, as does fatuous Texas Ranger LaBouef (Matt Damon), hunting down Chaney for crimes committed in the Lone Star State.

What one first notices about the screenplay is how comfortably it returns to the caricature-based comedy that was so central to the Coens' early comedies: there's more than a little Raising Arizona in the deadpan humor that comes from watching people who don't seem to be aware that they could not possibly exist in the real world. It's much less uncomfortable than the same kind of jokes were in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, projects driven by anger as much as by the desire to be funny; True Grit has that certain sense of being peopled by live-action cartoon characters that was, once upon a time, what we meant by the word "Coenesque." It's a showcase for delightfully bent performances, none of which matters nearly so much as Steinfeld's, a film-dominating turn that has, thanks to the perversity of awards season, been labelled as "supporting", despite the fact that, to a tremendous degree, the success of True Grit and the success of the teenage actress making her first studio picture are precisely the same. Without Mattie being the perfect combination of brittle, stubborn, vicious, and beatifically naïve, there would be nothing to True Grit at all besides its technical accomplishments (which are profound) and the gently smirking comedy that some of us have come to adore over the brothers' career (which is entirely funny); and while Steinfeld is sometimes stiff and uncomfortable and over-thinking her part, for the great bulk of her screentime, she is exactly what the role needs. Through this character, True Grit becomes a most classically Western kind of coming-of-age story, of a character certain that violence and a refusal to compromise are the only ways to exist in a savage world, slowly coming to understand exactly what her narrow worldview implies - and still not really making the choice to abandon that worldview. None of this is dug into terribly deeply; whether because film expects the audience to commit to doing the work on our own, or because the film simply doesn't care all that much about the conflicted, harsh place that is Mattie's brain, it's difficult to say.

In the meanwhile, the film looks and sounds devastatingly beautiful: all of the usual Coen co-conspirators are on hand to make a film that no other creative team could have done. Mary Zophres's spectacularly evocative costumes, which capture both the superficial period trappings and the peculiarities of the characters wearing them; Jess Gonchor's stupidly detailed production design, a vision of the Old West as muddy and actual and alive as anything in Deadwood, still the high water-mark of realistic Neo-Westerns; the mysterious and retiring Roderick Jaynes, whose laser-precision editing captures the exact rhythms of the Coens's script as perfectly as if he lived inside their heads.

Then there are the superstars: Carter Burwell, with what might be the most "presen't score he's ever written, a melange of old-timey Protestant hymns and music that only sounds like old-timey Protestant hymns. It's conceptually the perfect choice, but the execution is oddly pushy: it's not like Burwell or the Coens to let the music do this much of the feeling for one of their collaborations, and I still don't know if I absolutely love it or find it somewhat annoying. Lastly, of course, is the divine Roger Deakins, cinematographer to God Himself, with a magnificent companion piece to his career-topping work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: the two pieces are about as different as they could possibly be while both being quintessentially Western. Deakins taps into the spirit of a great many classics without ever directly quoting them (though if you can avoid thinking of Winton C. Hoch's legendary work in The Searchers during the winter scenes, you're made of stronger stuff than I; or maybe you haven't seen The Searchers, and should do so yesterday). There's a seamless melding of the strictly realistic with the more achingly mythological in Deakins's work here that gives the film a visually timeless feeling; the scenes late at night (particularly at the very end, when we see what Mattie sees in a feverish haze) are among the best work of Deakins's entire career, realistically impossible but so emotionally perfect, a storybook aesthetic at its very best.

And still, all this wonderful world-building, from the sets down to the sound editing, is in service to... anything? An awfully fun Western with a beautifully stubborn classical approach to storytelling - long scenes and no particular hurry to the pace, enough that here and there the film courts the danger of being thought "dull" - a fascinating though less than fully-expressed young protagonist, and Jeff Bridges being ecstatically broad, among several other good character actors doing excellent work. I will admit, more than most filmmakers, the work of the Coen brothers has in my experience rewarded several viewings before even the most apparently-obvious material has started to yield its genius (it took me three viewings to "get" Miller's Crossing, which I'm now happy to call their best film); maybe a couple years from now I'll remember thinking that True Grit was minor Coen cinema and laugh at my stupidity.

But I kind of doubt it. It just feels minor, albeit minor in the way of two of our very best geniuses. At the moment, I'd rank it in the same tier as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and I surely like that film quite a lot - but I didn't want to like True Grit, I wanted to adore it. And that's just not the case: if anyone else had made the same exact movie, I'd be rapturous over its tone, its perfect return to the texture of Westerns of old without sacrificing a wholly contemporary sensibility. Instead, I watch and am thoroughly entertained, and can't help but wonder: is that all?