Also in Slate, listen to the Culture Gabfest discuss True Grit.
The Coen brothers make two kinds of movies: ones that obsess over the existence of evil and ones that muse on it, accept it merrily, and plow on. True Grit (Paramount Pictures) is the second type, which I tend to prefer. I fear this nimble seriocomic Western won't be recognized as the fine movie it is, both because the Coens were so recently bathed in Oscar glory for No Country for Old Men and because critical opinion seems to prefer it when these smart Jewish boys from Minneapolis go deep and dark. A Serious Man, their last film, was a beautifully crafted puzzle that retold the Book of Job—or possibly Ecclesiastes—as a suburban domestic comedy. It was chilly, smart, bleakly hilarious, and cinematically virtuosic to a near-pathological degree. But like much of their work, it wasn't exactly a movie that offered itself up for the audience's love. True Grit does, and some Coen brothers fans may think that makes it pandering or lightweight. I think it makes it wonderful.
The story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl in 19th-century Arkansas who hires a bounty hunter to avenge her father's murder, this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne. Its most marked characteristic is its dialogue, written in a peculiar archaic diction that, for reasons I still haven't fully understood, never interferes with the movie's emotional directness. Informed that another character has died, Mattie observes gravely, "His depredations are over." These characters, none of whom seem likely to have had much education, toss around words like braggadocio and remonstrate, and contractions, as a rule, are eschewed. The effect is non-naturalistic but curiously convincing. We're not meant to believe that people in 19th-century America actually spoke this way, only to accept that this is a world with its own formal (and often very funny) language and its own inscrutable moral code.
After her father is shot by the bandit Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), Mattie engages the notoriously ruthless marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track the killer down in Choctaw territory, where he's hiding out with his gang. Cogburn, whom we first glimpse in a darkly comic courtroom scene, is a hard-drinking, one-eyed lout with an itchy trigger finger. He agrees to take Mattie's money for the job, but she insists on riding along with him to make sure it's done right. Along the way, they hook up with LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger (as he proudly informs anyone who looks at him crosswise) who's also in pursuit of Chaney for a set of unrelated crimes. The three form an uneasy and unstable alliance: Will Cogburn and LaBoeuf join forces to split Mattie's reward money? Will Mattie, disappointed in Cogburn's work ethic and tracking skills, abandon him and ride on with LaBoeuf?
The first hour and half or so of True Grit is as good as anything the Coens have ever done—a sweeping Western that, like John Ford's best films, exposes the cracks in American myths of frontier justice and self-reliance. Roger Deakins' rich, earth-toned cinematography and Carter Burwell's score, which relies heavily on the period hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," give the film a solidly tooled feeling, like a well-carved piece of wood. When Chaney and his gang show up near the end, there's a momentary slackening in the narrative, and I confess I found the climactic showdown a bit disappointing in its conventionality. But it's followed by a gorgeously lyrical sequence that, without revealing too much, I can only say may mark the first time I've ever shed tears in a Coen brothers movie.
Hailee Steinfeld's performance as Mattie Ross is sensational enough to deserve a whole paragraph rather than just an adjective or two. She was 13 years old when the movie was shot. (Think for a second about how together you were at 13.) Steinfeld is not only emotionally precise in her portrayal of this fierce, conniving, yet passionately just young girl; she's intellectually and verbally precise as well. Her line readings show both wit and a keen understanding of the script's high-flown diction, but they never sound studied or arch. Wherever the casting director dug this jewel up, she should keep digging.
Bridges and Damon are also in top form. Bridges, looking even more grizzled and unwholesome than he did in Crazy Heart, rolls his lines around in his mouth as if relishing a wad of chaw. Damon, as funny as he's ever been, milks a laugh from every utterance of his character's name, which he pronounces "LaBeef."As usual, the Coens pack the smaller roles—undertakers, horse traders, and assorted no-goodniks—with carefully chosen character actors whose faces look straight from an old tintype photograph. And, as someone who's been put off by the brothers' occasional sadism toward their audience, I appreciated that there were only a couple of scenes featuring cover-your-eyes graphic violence. The movie's only real Achilles' heel may be the flash-forward coda that makes up its last few minutes … but I'm venturing into Choctaw spoiler territory here. Just saddle up and see it yourself.