Westerns are only sporadically ever attempted these days, likely because the genre is so hard to pull off for 21st-century audiences. Done without just the right touch and they can seem old-fashioned (and not just because of the era they are set in), trite, lacking in sophistication, and hopelessly out of touch. In recent years, 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
" transcended expectations through its atmospherically elegant visuals, ruminative tone, and an unhurried storytelling approach that gave its bursts of violence and gunfire an increased weighty resonance. Never one to repeat themselves, prolific writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen (2007's "No Country for Old Men
") have now helmed the next considerably strong western. A more faithful rendering of the novel by Charles Portis than its previous 1969 screen adaptation starring John Wayne, "True Grit" doesn't necessarily break new ground, but what it does, it does very, very well.
14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with one goal in mind: to avenge the death of her father, robbed and shot down by one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She seeks the aid of grizzled Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to assist in her missionshe tells him she's heard he has "true grit"and before long they and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), wanting Chaney dead for his own reasons, have set out across the rocky Choctaw Nation in pursuit of their target. Mattie isn't sure they are even going in the right direction, but she's made a promise to herself and her father that she's not going to be returning home until the deed is done.
"True Grit" will be of particular interest to fans of the original film and Western buffs in general, but viewers need not be either to appreciate and get wrapped up in its deliciously told story. Whereas Mattie Ross almost became a supporting participant in her own story in the previous adaptation directed by Henry Hathaway, the Coen Brothers make sure that she is front and center here, all the way until the bittersweet ending set roughly thirty years beyond the central narrative's timeline. Don't let her age fool you, either; Mattie Ross might just be a young teenager, but she's quick, tough and intelligent, putting up a minimum of fuss as she goes about settling what she needs done and making it perfectly clear to those around her that she won't be taken advantage of. As the story takes Mattie, Cogburn and LaBeouf on a tour across the stark mountain terrain as they edge closer to Tom Chaney, the picture is renewed as a mood piece, evocatively photographed by Roger Deakins (2008's "Revolutionary Road
"). The drive of the plot and the ensuing action are firmly rooted in satisfying genre conventions, but the crux of things, little by little, becomes more about loyalty and unlikely friendship than the outcome of the revenge tale.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a major find as Mattie Ross and, were it not for the confusion over what category to put her in (she is up for supporting actress, even though she is in nearly every scene and narrates the story), she'd be a shoo-in for Academy Awards notice. Mattie carries a hefty veneer in front of her, rarely willing to show her most vulnerable emotions, but Steinfeld nonetheless finds the heart and drive within her so that she is never a one-dimensional character. As the hard-living Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges (2010's "Tron: Legacy
") isn't far removed from his Oscar-winning role in 2009's "Crazy Heart," only transplanted over a century into the past. The more time he spends with Mattie, the more he respects her and sees her as a vital part of their journey. It's a relationship that would never have occurred were it not for the murder of Mattie's father, but it is one that is destined to stick with her even as she grows up. More or less disappearing behind mannerisms and a physical guise far removed from his usual portrayals, Matt Damon (2010's "Hereafter
") is excellent as LaBeouf, his purpose and allegiances up for debate as the viewer tries to figure him out.
It is no surprise when Tom Chaney, the man responsible for the loss of Mattie's father, enters the story near the end. As consequences ratchet higher and a set-piece involving a cave, skeletal remains, and several slithering snakes proves genuinely skin-crawling, the story's focus narrows deeper as Joel and Ethan Coen burrow beyond what is expected. Too reliant on coincidences a time or two, but otherwise rock-solid in its writing, "True Grit" locates its emotional center in the climax and wrap-upa turn of events only those who have read the novel will see coming. The epilogue, finding Mattie Ross grown up (played by Elizabeth Marvel) and yet pulled again toward the past, may just blindside you with its quiet power. Unsentimental all her life and never having allowed herself the chance to get close to anyone, Mattie's humanity is revealed in the one bond that's ever meant anything to her. Saying so much so simply and eloquently about the passage of time and the inability to reclaim more than memories, the final words of Mattie's voice-over are where the film's truth finally lies. It is this more than anything that turns "True Grit" into so much more than just a study in dusty chestnuts of the Wild West.