"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood," Mattie Ross declares at the beginning of Charles Portis' novel True Grit, "but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."
On its publication in 1968, Portis' comic Western was instantly recognized for its rare blend of popular appeal and high merit: "a lean but plucky novel," a TIME reviewer wrote, "gilded with literary quality that can delight book lovers as well as bookkeepers." Within a year, Hollywood had adapted True Grit into a crowd-pleasing movie that plopped John Wayne into the role of U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, Mattie's one-eyed partner in pursuit of the murderer Tom Chaney. Playing broader than usual, and investing a figure of autumnal majesty with some self-poking fun, Wayne won a long-overdue Oscar for best actor.
Still, Portis admirers rankled at the sanitizing of the many elements of the story, at the demotion of Mattie to a supporting character attending Wayne's cinematic coronation and at the transforming of Mattie from a girl at the portal of her teens to an elderly tomboy played by Kim Darby, who turned 22 the week the film opened. In an act of literary restitution, Joel and Ethan Coen have made a more faithful movie version. Rooster is now played by Jeff Bridges, the star of their 1998 The Big Lebowski; the Dude replaces the Duke. Without unduly reducing the Rooster role, the brothers have restored Mattie to the center of the action and cast 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as Portis' diminutive, female Ahab. To those who have fond or foul memories of the Wayne True Grit, the Coens might be saying: You've seen the movie, now see the book.
So Mattie now relates the tale from the decades-later vantage of spinsterhood. As an Arkansas girl in the outlaw 1870s, she embarked on her journey of revenge because, she says, "My brother is a child, and my mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief." She chooses Cogburn for what she believes is his "true grit," though readers and viewers know from the start that no one possesses that virtue more than Mattie herself. "I admire your sand," acknowledges one of her adversaries, using a word popularized by Mark Twain to refer to courage and perseverance. She is a genuine, Old Testament heroine, as dogged in her mission to find the killer of a family member as Wayne's Ethan Edwards was in a similar fable of revenge, John Ford's more magnificent, troubling and haunting The Searchers.
Following Winter's Bone and The Fighter, the Coens' True Grit is the latest in this year's parade of films about smart, decent, preternaturally capable children who avenge or overcome their crazy or enfeebled mothers and outwit all the tough characters who stand in their way. Cloaked in the garb of realism, these striving children are as much figures of fantasy as Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. Taking Mattie's implacable resolve and improbable knowledge of legal lore at face value, the Coens whip up a skillful entertainment that still leaves the viewer wondering why they spent a year of their lives on the project.
The questions more often asked of the Coens are a perplexed "Are they kidding?" (apropos Burn After Reading) or, with A Serious Man, an annoyed "Is this supposed to be funny?" To the meager extent that one can read the minds of these delphic siblings, True Grit seems to be an honest stab at transfering a beloved book as accurately as possible from page to screen. Can actors comfortably speak, and audiences easily assimilate, Portis' ornate, contraction-averse prose? The Coens present the novel's dialogue more or less as written; indeed they revere it as Holy Writ. ("He is not my friend," Mattie says at one point of Rooster. "He has abandoned me to a congress of louts.") It's not Shakespeare, but it requires in the listener a special attentiveness for full savoring; and that's a pleasure worth working for. The tense verbal comedy of Mattie's early negotiation with a Fort Smith merchant should win you over to this movie's high linguistic wit. If not, you may as well slip out of the theater and into Little Fockers.
Oscar winners for the Fargo screenplay in 1997, and for best picture, direction and screenplay in 2008 for No Country for Old Men, the Coens found in Portis' novel another parable of a stalwart soul who obsessively hunts down a murderer in a harsh climate. The brothers' usual cool tone, which lowers the temperature of any story they touch, is appropriate to the wintry setting of the Oklahoma Indian Territory of the 1870s. Everyone's bundled in heavy coats (one man wears a bearskin), as if in anticipation of a killing frost. Roger Deakins' cinematography expertly evokes the chill in the hunters' bones as they track their deadly quarry Tom Chaney, who in Josh Brolin's rendition turns out to be a creature as small and pitiable as his crime was grand and mean.
The Coens also jettison the 1969 movie's romance between Mattie and the third member of her small posse, the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced la-beef), here played by Matt Damon. At first, LaBoeuf's interest in the girl wavers between the weirdly flirtatious (he has a mind to kiss her when he sees her in bed) and the parentally predatory (spanking her when she shows spunk by fording a river to join the pursuit). A righteous dude with jangling spurs, whom Mattie initially pegs as "a rodeo clown," LaBoeuf eventually demonstrates his sharpshooting capabilities and his sweet respect for Mattie when, in the film's tenderest scene, he bids her farewell.
In some elements of casting, the Coens stuck with actors who would evoke the 1969 version. Dakin Matthews as Col. Stonehill, the merchant Mattie tangles with, imparts the same wily bombast that Strother Martin brought to the first movie; and Barry Pepper, as the leader of the gang Chaney has joined, is a dead ringer for the 1969 film's Robert Duvall. The book's Mattie describes Rooster as being "about forty years of age," but Wayne was 63 when his True Grit was released; Bridges is 61. For most of his exemplary career, he has been a vessel of nuance and agreeability, not the broad strokes of a crowing Rooster. Bridges can duplicate the grandeur of personality that was Wayne's birthright, but it's still counterfeit more an acting job than a proud expression of self. Only toward the end, as Rooster fulfills a treacherous mission of mercy, does Bridges finally earn the role; and even here, he's out-acted by "Little Blackie," the horse he's riding. Is there an Oscar for Best Supporting Equine?
In a few of her scenes, Steinfeld rushes through the Portis-Coen dialogue as if it were an oration she had memorized for school. Even here, though, she imparts an imposing gravitas, interrupted only by the half-smile she flashes as yet another tough guy underestimates her strength of spine. The Coens could have chosen a valued name brand like Dakota Fanning or Saoirse Ronan. Instead, they cast a 13-year-old in her first big role. Steinfeld a striking, smiling, willowy teen who exudes a kind of naive chic fully resides inside the skin of a 19th century character very different from her. As Mattie, she's all business, possessed of a willful poise that first infuriates and then impresses all those raw men whose help she needs in fulfilling her mission.
Though billed a demeaning fifth in the credits, and proposed as an Oscar candidate in the supporting-actress category, Steinfeld is the heart, star and glory of True Grit. If some of the film's laggard middle passages make you wonder why the Coens took on this enterprise, you should realize by the end that they discovered the movie's reason for being: as a celestial showcase for Hailee's comet.