Roy Blount Jr. once wrote that Charles Portis, the author of True Grit, "could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to but he'd rather be funny."
Perhaps that might explain Joel and Ethan Coen's decision to adapt Portis's best-known novel for the screen, following their success three years ago with McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. Though both films are westerns, and have their share of sardonic humour and carnage, True Grit is a much tamer offering, wry rather than comic; melancholy rather than weighty. Though handsomely made and well acted, the film never completely escapes the sense that it's an exercise in genre excavation.
The solemn edge was largely missing from director Henry Hathaway's 1969 adaptation, made the year after Portis's novel was published, which famously gave John Wayne his only Oscar, hamming it up as the one-eyed drunken marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn.
While the Coens aren't exactly setting the record straight, it's easy to see why they were drawn to Portis's work, with its regional setting and flavourful language, blending Biblical homilies and quaint 19th-century American dialogue.
An early verbal shootout takes place between 14-year-old Mattie Ross (the precociously poised Hailee Steinfeld) and a veteran horse trader (Dakin Matthews). A pigtailed, hyper-articulate adolescent, Mattie has come to the frontier town of Fort Smith, Ark., to claim the body of her father, murdered for two gold pieces and a horse by his hired hand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The movie is framed by her voice-over adult reminiscences, and she warns us early that we are in for a lesson: "You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God."
Carter Burwell's score, based on 19th-century Protestant hymns, underlines the theme of moral reckoning.
After putting her father's corpse on a train home to her mother, Mattie collects some of his money and sets out to hire someone to bring his killer to justice. That leads her to the alcoholic, notoriously trigger-happy Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), first heard growling from inside an outhouse as Mattie argues with him from outside the door.
The Coen brothers are truer to the source material than the earlier movie was. Though Bridges also has outsized charisma (and a baritone rumble that seems to emerge like a series of barks from a mine shaft beneath his beard), he plays Cogburn as a muddled human being.
Against his wishes, Mattie insists on accompanying him on his trek from west Arkansas through the "Indian lands" (present-day Oklahoma), home to outlaws and outcasts.
Travelling with them is a fastidious and vain Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to bring Chaney back to Texas for another crime. The two men spar and jostle in masculine one-upmanship. They are not the strong silent types: "I'm struck," growls Cogburn, "that LaBoeuf has been shot, brambled and near severed his tongue. Not only does he not cease to talk, but he spills the banks of English."
The journey is only slightly less adventurous than Portis's sentences, an episodic coming-of-age story that evokes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in its parade of eccentric characters and grisly events. Eventually, the wintry desert landscape is littered with corpses, though most of the violence is swift and relatively bloodless.
As usual, the Coens' visual elements are pristine. The contrasting colours in the fire-lit interiors are gorgeous, while cinematographer Roger Deakins keeps the camera close, resisting traditional panoramic views. Only in a climactic montage that depicts a ride back to civilization are we granted the classic western images -- a star-filled night and a galloping horse and rider silhouetted against the skyline. The images are conventional but liberating, with an emotional momentum that too much of True Grit lacks.
- Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
- Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
- Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon
- Classification: PG-13