Among the several pleasures of the Coen brothers' True Grit, at least one—the perfect casting of Jeff Bridges as the cantankerous U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn—was to be expected. Another—a sharp comic turn by Matt Damon as a prissy Texas Ranger—is something of a surprise. And a third—a breakthrough star performance by 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld—is an unexpected revelation.
Steinfeld, making her movie debut with the thinnest of thespian résumés—a few commercials and short films, a little TV—dominates the picture as Mattie Ross, a young girl in 1870s Arkansas determined to track down the outlaw who murdered her father and bring him to justice, or, preferably, to shoot him dead. Journeying to Fort Smith to recover her late father's effects—among them a very large pistol—she learns that his killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, impeccably dim), has lit out for the nearby Choctaw Nation, a lawless precinct that draws all manner of fugitive rogues and rascals. Seeking assistance in her quest, Mattie is referred to Rooster Cogburn, a grumpy drunk of dubious ethics who has apprehended many an outlaw, but rarely brought one back alive. (Asked how many men he has killed in his four years as a marshal, the scroungy lawman says 12, maybe 15. Then, after a moment of muttering thought, "Well, 23.")
Mattie decides Rooster is "a man of true grit," and approaches him in the back of a Chinese grocery, where he's sleeping off his latest whiskey binge under a canopy of hanging smoked ducks and sausages. She offers him $50 to join her in pursuit of Chaney. (We've seen her pry this money out of a local horse dealer, hilariously, in an earlier scene.) Rooster demands $100 for the job. Mattie is indignant. "I'm givin' you the children's rate," he protests.
Soon, and much to their displeasure, Mattie and Rooster are joined by Damon's Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, who's also on Chaney's trail for the murder of a state senator. In fact, he's been chasing Chaney for quite a while. "Why did you not catch him?" Mattie asks with frank contempt. "He is a crafty one," LaBeouf limply replies.
Like the 1969 True Grit, for which John Wayne, in the role of Rooster Cogburn, won his only Oscar, this new movie is based on an esteemed comic novel by Charles Portis. But the Coens' film isn't really a remake of that earlier picture; it's their characteristically singular take on the book, and more faithful to it (especially in its portrayal of Mattie and her ultimate fate). And the script they've fashioned from Portis' celebrated prose is a delight in itself, rich with contorted Victorian locutions. When Mattie attempts to comfort a wounded man after a gunfight, he tells her, with pained regret, "I am considerably diminished." When LaBeouf grows weary of Mattie's constant derision, he says, "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements." And when Mattie, in Rooster's sudden absence, is briefly captured by an outlaw gang, she suffers a rare moment of despair: "He had abandoned me to a congress of louts."
The picture is also graced with the visual resonance of the Coens' longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who captures the sun-flooded mountains and starry nightscapes through which Mattie and her partners pass with eloquent style. (One opening scene—a shot of a dead body crumpled under falling snow, illuminated only by a nearby porch light—is a small master class in its own right.)
Bridges inhabits the role of Rooster Cogburn with grungy, potbellied èlan. ("I'd give three dollars right now for a pickled buffalo tongue," he bellows at one point.) And while Damon already confirmed his comic chops in last year's The Informant!, here he's both wilier and more self-deprecating—a man whose Ranger braggadocio is undermined by his constant, overreaching silliness. ("I have lapped filthy water from a hoof print.") But it's Steinfeld, holding her own in every scene with these seasoned stars, who lights up the movie. With her cutting sarcasm and fierce rectitude, she's the very picture of true grit herself. And when she saddles up in pursuit of the killer Chaney, with a spunky determination flashing in her eyes, you want to follow her wherever she goes.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
Editors Note: This article originally misidentified the time period where the movie is set.