True Grit is rated PG-13. There are guns and killin’ and a hangin’. But it’s not grim and realistic, it’s a western adventure with a competent, determined teenaged girl at the center. Maybe it’s not for every family, but my wife seemed to enjoy the “you go girl” spirit of Mattie, who takes charge of her family’s affairs after the loss of her father.
Having seen the 1969 version just prior, I expected the Coen Brothers to run in the opposite direction. The version that won John Wayne his Oscar is a smiley, peppy little number (about revenge), with songs by Glen Campbell. The 2010 trailer with a gruff Jeff Bridges shot mostly in bleak shadow made me think maybe the Coen brothers would make a truly gritty True Grit.
Instead, the main difference seems to be that the 2010 version is a little more faithful to the book. The plotting makes more sense and the characters are better defined. Plus the Coen brothers are capable of shooting a believable night scene, so that helps too. ...And this Mattie has a hairstyle apropos of the 1800s.
Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) has come to town to claim the body of her father, who was shot dead by his hired hand. She also came to hire a bounty hunter to bring her father’s killer to justice. The Coen brothers have gone dark in the past (who can forget the wood chipper in Fargo?), but Mattie seems motivated more by order and propriety than by revenge. Granted, given a choice of three Marshalls she chooses the one with the meanest reputation, but she doesn’t seem particularly thirsty for blood.
And as it turns out, Rooster Cogburn’s (Jeff Bridges) meanness has faded, though he served in a monstrous regiment during the Civil War. Now he comes across as a competent hunter and a passable father figure to the 14-year-old heroine, at least when he’s not drunk. He’s smart and cagey. He can do bold and brave, but it’s calculated — charging seven men looks foolhardy but is merely a matter of presence and strategy. The gravel missing from Bridges’ voice in Crazy Heart is here by the truckload. To keep Cogburn from being too likeable, Bridges and the Coens have Rooster kicking a couple of children, but it’s all character-building fun.
Mr. LeBoeuf is a Texas Ranger also on the trail of the killer. He throws in with Rooster and Mattie. Matt Damon delivers the character with elitist pride that’s a perfect foil to Cogburn’s egalitarian street smarts. There are funny moments in this adventure story, and they often happen when Damon is around.
The Coen brothers always put on a good show, and their old crew is all here — Roger Deakins on camera, Carter Burwell on music, Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and J.K. Simmons (just barely) in the cast. Most Coen brothers films seem to have some level of artifice — some theatrical delivery or cinematic flourish that keeps the movie from being too conventional. Not so in this film. True Grit seems remarkably straightforward. Perhaps the strangest contrivance is that the characters speak without contractions — “I will this” and “I do not that” — although the formal way of speaking is also in the book. Nobody has fascinatingly bad hair.
Other critics love the Coen brothers more than I do, and that’s okay. I may not put True Grit on my top ten list. Still, I can’t think of a Coen brothers movie I’ve disliked, including this one.
And it’s definitely a step up from John Wayne and Glen Campbell.