The strong-willed lass is as recognizable a type in frontier literature as the lone, vengeful gunslinger. Mattie Ross, the no-nonsense narrator of Charles Portis’s serialized novel True Grit, combines the two roles. Old before her time, the teenage girl seeks to track down and punish her father’s killer, but instead of doing so herself, she hires Rooster Cogburn, a rambling lawman whom she accompanies. In the Coen Brothers’ new adaptation of Portis’s stylized 1968 book, Mattie’s own sense of justice and desire for vengeance, sentiments so central to the Western, manifest themselves in feats of tenacity rather than gunplay—by a prerogative constantly earned, rather than the gunslinger’s mix of tough and bluff.
Mattie is a force to be reckoned with, more so than the teacher’s pet know-it-all of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version, and the Coens’ casting of an unknown (Hailee Steinfeld) underlines her character’s self-made independence. But for the most part, True Grit 2010 is essentially a genial odd-couple (or odd-triangle) comedy: Mattie, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and goofily proud Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) set out on the trail of killer Tom Chaney (played by a stormy Josh Brolin), whose name becomes a mantra long before he turns up. Rather than narrative drive or monumental landscapes (DP Roger Deakins favors storybook color and perspective over nature’s own beauty and depth), the Coens seem more fixated stylistically on words than images.
Coen dialogue, at its extreme in the likes of Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, already resembles a dialect, and the brothers clearly enjoy adopting Portis’s dry plainspoken idiom. They seem to have directed their cast (with the partial exception of Damon) to mete out sentences word by word without contractions. “I do not know this man,” uttered by Cogburn, gets a laugh as if it’s a droll understatement, and phrases like “notorious thumper,” although also preserved by Hathaway, become Coenisms. Yet even more striking are the voices that speak the lines: with his leisurely growl, somewhere between trail-grizzled and post-nap, Bridges sounds as if he’s talking through his collar, in a vocal performance that’s entertaining no matter what he’s saying, whether or not we understand it, and well complemented by the actor’s pose of laid-back appraisal. Even more basso, and hallucinatorily slow, is the drawl of a bear-fur-clad itinerant sawbones whom the trio encounters, a Dead Man–caliber apparition. Steinfeld’s micromanaging evenness is also impressive, and a source of humor for her frequent presumption; her witty concision contrasts with Cogburn’s lonely on-the-trail chattiness.
The puffed-up back and forth between Cogburn and LeBoeuf, with Mattie as witness and sometime commentator, recalls a bumbling Shakespearean sideshow (à la Twelfth Night), and the routine (and reaction shots) gets a little old. But as is often the case, the Coens manage a mythological flourish—even The Ladykillers had the Garbage Barge of Eternal Souls—and their True Grit is boosted by a transporting fever dream: Cogburn’s death-cheating nighttime gallop to rush Mattie to a doctor. And by restoring the book’s ending, with a jump forward to Mattie’s one-armed spinsterhood, the Coens acknowledge Portis’s perspective, which is that of a girl’s tale told by the woman she became. Years after the eventful journey, Mattie is still sharp, but also hard, and quicker than ever to call someone “trash”—casting a pale light of melancholy on an adventure long past.