Longtime fans of both the Coen brothers and Charles Portis’ novel will understand why the Coens wanted to adapt True Grit as a film: It’s already a Coen brothers film. It’s a genre piece ripe for tweaking—in this case a Western, and it comes pre-tweaked. It sports a seriocomic tone, veering from dry (and not so dry) humor to bloody mayhem within minutes. The colorful collection of characters—a humorlessly precocious teenage girl, a drunken one-eyed trigger-happy lawman, a preening Texas ranger with half a tongue, various comically unsavory outlaws—spouts arcane lingo, here a contraction-light farrago of absurd courtliness and violent threats. All the Coens needed to do was cast it, shoot it, and get regular collaborator Carter Burwell to score it. Which, it appears, is pretty much what they did.
For those not familiar with the novel or the less faithful 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne, upstanding rancher Frank Ross has been murdered and robbed by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, perfect in one of the character roles that are going to be keeping him steadily employed for the next 30 years). Ross’ 14-year-old daughter Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld, looking like a baby Asia Argento), takes care of the details of the burial because, as she notes in a preternaturally poised rush, her younger brother is a child and her mother is “indecisive and hobbled by grief.” She hires sozzled U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to chase down her man, and they’re joined by a Texas dandy named LaBouef (Matt Damon), who’s also on Chaney’s trail. The trio squabbles over saddle horns and around campfires as they draw ever closer to Chaney, who has joined up with a gang led by “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), meaning Mattie’s expedition is outnumbered deep in forbidding territory.
The novel’s eccentric snap and mordancy is so bespoke Coens from the get-go that one is somewhat surprised that the film doesn’t seem more, well, Coen-y. While a couple of their trademark colorful grotesques jump out, you can almost feel the filmmakers reining themselves in. At one point, Mattie is forced to ford a river to catch up to the rest of her tiny posse, and she and her horse plunge into the river and cross it, in something like real time, blowing and splashing with Burwell doing his best Aaron Copland in the background. It’s not a scene from a Coen film but a scene from a Western, designed to underline Mattie’s will and pluck and emphasize the difficulties of the travel they face. It begins to become clear that there will be no mock-surreal dream sequences, no butt-rock interludes. As with their other Western, the polarizing No Country for Old Men, they’re playing it fairly straight.
Even casting the Dude as Rooster Cogburn doesn’t feel particularly Coen-esque. Carrying a sackful of extra pounds and gravelling up his voice until he sounds like a hick version of Red Deutsch from the Tube Bar tapes, Bridges transforms himself into a dissolute peace officer who would generally rather just go ahead and shoot outlaws than go to the trouble of hauling them back. That penchant for ruthlessness is what draws Mattie to Rooster in the first place, and even with her mature poise, she can’t hide her girlish admiration for him as he starts putting bullets into Pepper’s gang. But a close-up that lingers on Rooster’s gore-flecked, trembling face after a close-quarters killing telegraphs the terrible stakes involved in such bloody business; Mattie will soon come to understand all too well that “adventure” is just another word for extreme risk and constant mortal danger. Fortunately the “grit” she surmised in Rooster is real, as is the good heart that is in any Bridges performance right down at the cellular level.
So True Grit is a Western, but it’s also a love story. And it’s a comedy, too. Damon picks parts as well as any other mainstream actor working today, and he gets to have such fun with his strutting, self-impressed Ranger that it’s infectious. Steinfeld acquits herself well throughout, and her pair of scenes out-trading a horse trader (Dakin Matthews) are bound for some kind of highlight reel somewhere. Even Brolin’s Chaney earns a few laughs. The humor counts as something to recommend the film, though it can’t help but add to the impression that this True Grit is a bit lightweight. Maybe it sounds strange to call a revenge film littered with corpses lightweight, but maybe it’s the core emotionalism of the story. Or the bad CGI at a crucial moment. Or just how likable Bridges remains, even in “unsavory” mode. In the end, True Grit is entertaining, well-crafted, and perplexing. Like a Coen brothers film.