“I ain’t dead yet, you bushwhacker.”
As a starting point, True Grit shares much in common with Winter’s Bone, another film about a young woman of singular purpose, driven to extraordinary lengths by the actions (or inactions) of her now absent father. In the case of Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone, her father, presumably dead, has endangered the family’s home to legal foreclosure unless Ree tracks him down. Possessed with a fiercely maternal instinct, Ree plunges deep into the backwoods thicket of family secrets, all of which are touched in one way or another by the meth trade.
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the indomitable 14-year-old force of nature who blazes straight through the heart of this movie, is also haunted by her absent father. In Mattie’s case, though, there is no ambiguity about whether he is still among the living — he was killed by the drifter Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie then takes it upon herself to personally avenge her father’s death. She has the wit, smarts and resources — the grit — to know that she needs help navigating the wilds of Choctaw territory into which Chaney has fled with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang. She enlists the help of the one-eyed U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges as a grunting drunk with an itchy trigger finger and a prickly intelligence. (The Coen brothers, in a nice touch, put Cogburn’s patch on the opposite eye as John Wayne’s in the 1969 original. Both versions are based on the book by Charles Portis.)
What the Coen brothers bring to their remake is a measured faithfulness to the book’s formal, courtly dialect (“His depradations are over,” Mattie says of a dead man), all delivered straight-faced and in sharp contrast to the disorderly violence that erupts whenever the characters stop talking. The one having the most fun with the language is a Texas Ranger named LaBouef, played by Matt Damon as a preening straight arrow unaware that he’s not the character nicknamed “Rooster.” His verbal sparring, first with Mattie, then on the trail with Cogburn, is among the movie’s finest comic moments. The best, though, are the early scenes between Mattie and Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews), negotiating over the return of some horses. “Wait, are we trading again?” Stonehill asks with alarm when he realizes Mattie has led him into another trap.
It’s striking to watch a Coen brothers film without irony. There is genuine, heartfelt emotion in the bonds Mattie forms with her two men, and in the harrowing climax when Cogburn must ride Mattie to safety underneath the cold, blue stars. (Dana Stevens at Slate confesses that this sequence marked “the first time I’ve ever shed tears in a Coen brothers movie.” Speaking of those cold, blue stars, the cinematographer Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, does gorgeous work as usual.) Ann Hornaday noted in her review for the Washington Post that Mattie bears a certain resemblance to another iconic Coen brothers female lead — Marge Gunderson of Fargo, the dogged, relentless police officer who provided the moral and ethical compass lacking in the world around her. Like Fargo, True Grit deserves to be considered one of the Coens’ finest. When Iris DeMent breaks into “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as the credits roll, you may be surprised at the chord the Coens touched in you, and in themselves.