Few Western purists might have guessed it, but it turns out Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing/directing team famed for their darkly ironic humor and eccentric characters, were the perfect filmmakers to adapt one of the most beloved cowboy flicks of all time-True Grit.
The Coens built their brand on smart but subversive storytelling. Their movies are peopled with idiots that plod along, marring the world with violence in pursuit of the most petty and pathetic ambitions. Yet while the siblings have been accused of being misanthropes, their best films (Fargo and No Country for Old Men jump to mind) also bear a mark of moral probing that allows their characters the possibility of something finer and fits perfectly with the narrative here.
When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Ark., she is looking for a man with "true grit" to go after the outlaw who murdered her father. Single-minded and intelligent (though not necessarily wise) beyond her years, Mattie will brook no attempts to sway her from her path of vengeance. It doesn't take her long to wear down the objections of the meanest, orneriest marshal she can find-one-eyed Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). Drunk, disorderly, and possibly homicidal, Rooster can't shake the solemn-faced, Scripture-quoting girl and soon finds his hunt joined by a foppish Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who's a better braggart than he is a marksman.
In typical Coen fashion, the movie mines plenty of humor from Mattie and her confederacy of dunces. We don't always follow exactly what Bridges and Damon are sparring about in their archaic language, but the arguments are always funny. The difference between this movie and some of the directors' worst is that none of these characters are used merely for mockery. Each possesses some measure of the grit of the title, and as the trio get to know each other on the trail, their presumptions about one another fall away.
It's been getting a little repetitive in the last couple of years to say that Jeff Bridges gives an "amazing performance," but, well, he does. If Bridges was at all daunted stepping into the shoes that won John Wayne his first and only Oscar, he never shows it. His Rooster is at once pitiable, menacing, buffoonish, and steely. Damon is equally good as a dandy whose fringed clothes mask hidden depths. But the real story on the acting front is Steinfeld. Without a young actress who can make us believe that a 14-year-old girl would care that much about avenging her father's death and possess the determination to see the task through, True Grit would fall flat. Steinfeld delivers on every front, particularly as she develops Mattie's growing conflict between her desire for justice and the realities of violence.
The Coens bring up the question of the cost of vengeance and underline it with an opening quote from Proverbs and a score of traditional hymns, but they don't answer it. In a stark departure from modern-day convention, the movie doesn't suggest that seeing and experiencing brutality in pursuit of her father's killer is necessarily a negative thing for Mattie. It may make her grow into a harder woman, maybe even a lonelier woman, but it may also make her more a clear-eyed woman. The movie itself is far too clear-eyed to offer sentimentalized morals one way or the other.
The only major misstep Joel and Ethan Coen make is when they indulge their trademark penchant for comic gore. There's no question that doing a Western right is probably going to require some shootin' and killin'. But a few mercifully brief scenes that earn the movie a PG-13 rating (such as when one character's fingers are lopped off) don't fit with the film's earnest tone. Without them, True Grit is a masterpiece that should win over the most dedicated Duke die-hards and introduce a new generation of boys (and girls) to the gritty thrills of the Wild West.