After a brief flirting with the Western in 2007’s No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers go the whole hog with True Grit, a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name. Previously adapted into a film starring John Wayne, which won the iconic star his only Oscar, the book tells the story of a teenage girl who tracks down her father’s murderer with the help of one Rooster Cogburn, a boozy, grizzled, one-eyed US marshal with “true grit”.
The Coens’ take is darker, understated and almost surreal in places, and their film stars Jeff Bridges as the world-weary Cogburn who heads out into the stark wintry landscape accompanied by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) who’s hired him. They’re joined by Texas Ranger LaBouef (played by Matt Damon) on their dangerous chase after Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin), the man who robbed and killed the young girl’s father.
Stunningly filmed in hues of browns and greys, and set against a moody score, the film has all the trademarks of a typical Coen Brothers experience – shocking outbursts of violence, quirky supporting characters, and curious speech patterns. Bridges mumbles through his dialogue as the permanently drunken Cogburn, so much so that most of his words are incomprehensible. Yet it’s an impressive performance, especially for the comic touches he brings to his character, and that tinge of unpredictable menace.
The big revelation, however, is Steinfeld. While Mattie Ross hires Cogburn for his “true grit”, it’s the actress who exhibits it, standing tall alongside such solid actors as Bridges and Damon. She invests Mattie with confidence, courage and sass, and yet never turns into one of those annoying precocious teenagers.
Delivering both action and laughs, the film has a morbid sense of humor that’s likely to appeal to anyone who’s a fan of the Coens’ cinema. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for True Grit. It’s a smart Western for today’s times. Don’t miss it.