Among Western lovers, “True Grit” is a somewhat of a sacred cow. The original movie, in 1969, won John Wayne his only Oscar, and its success sparked a wider discovery of the Charles Portis novel on which it was based.
In the new “True,” Jeff Bridges saddles up the John Wayne role as Rooster Cogburn, the cantankerous, alcoholic sheriff hired by a resourceful 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (a knockout performance by newcomer Heilee Steinfeld), to avenge her slain father. Matt Damon plays the know-it-all Texas Ranger who tags along for the ride, and Josh Brolin is the baddie on the run they’re all hoping to bag.
The vision for this version belongs to the writer-director duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose sense of deliciously morbid humor, quirky dialogue and dense detail spurs the whole shebang. “True Grit” isn’t as out-there as “The Big Lebowski,” as goofy as “Raising Arizona,” as bleak as “No Country For Old Men,” or as twisted as “Fargo,” but it crackles, like a good campfire, with colorful Coen flourishes all the same.
First, the Coens immerse viewers in their characters, spending a good deal of time setting everything up before the action of the second half is ready to uncoil. A dandy five-minute courtroom scene establishes Rooster as a lawman with a loose interpretation of criminal rights.
Another scene between Mattie and a horse merchant draws out the negotiations by which she’s able to wrangle a deal on her terms—and suggests why we should have no trouble believing she’d have the gumption to go after her father’s killer.
And in just one encounter between Mattie and Damon’s character, the straight-arrow Texas Ranger LeBeouf, we learn all we need to know about how he’ll fit into the story as the preening, polished counterpart to the loutish, bottle-loving sheriff.
When the shooting starts, the knives come out and the rattlesnakes and bad guys both start to hiss, we’re right there alongside three very different characters we’ve come to know, like and understand.
Bridges, Damon, Brolin, the Coens—that’s quite an impressive pedigree, and it absolutely, totally clicks. But the real revelation here is young Steinfeld, who provides the center of gravity around which the rest of the movie, and all the other characters, revolve. “True Grit” is Mattie’s story above all else, and Steinfeld sells it with an amazing natural grace and ease.
The movie’s on-location cinematography looks gorgeous, and the soundtrack, often incorporating snippets of an old familiar hymn, reinforces Mattie’s Protestant resolve.
The final scene, about what happened to Mattie (and Rooster) 25 years later, wasn’t in the 1969 movie, and it’s pure Coens—a parting shot of sweetness and warmth spiked with irony about the “everlasting arms” that carried her to safety.
More faithful to the novel than its predecessor, this “True Grit” follows the basic plotline of the previous movie—if anyone’s keeping score. When it gallops to a close, it pretty much leaves 1969 in its dust.