By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 12:47 AM
The writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen follow a familiar pattern with "True Grit," which, after last year's "A Serious Man," hews to the team's formula of following an absurdist comedy with a stately, straight-faced drama. Here, they remake the 1969 western that earned John Wayne his only Oscar, a pedigree that might give lesser egos pause. But anyone who saw Henry Hathaway's Technicolor extravaganza and remembers being puzzled by the topographical phenomena of snowy peaks in Arkansas and Glen Campbell's hair know that even the most beloved classics can sometimes use a little sprucing up.
In this case, "True Grit" has received the care, consideration and classy retooling that Charles Portis's novel probably always deserved. As Rooster Cogburn, Jeff Bridges merrily assumes the familiar eye patch and whiskey jug to grunt, growl, honk and bray his way through one of the great scenery-chewing roles of cinematic lore. But even at its most heroically Falstaffian, his performance is continually upstaged by those of his supporting players. In Campbell's role of a tenderfooted Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, Matt Damon brings preening fun to a popinjay in spurs and suede fringe; his throwaway lines and sidelong glances finally realize the comic promise the character always possessed.
For her part, Hailee Steinfeld makes an uncommonly assured debut as the invincible Mattie Ross, whose father, when "True Grit" opens, has been shot by a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie arrives in Fort Smith, Ark., to claim her father's body, acquire cash by way of some canny horse trading and avenge her father's death by hunting Chaney down and seeing him hang. She enlists U.S. Marshal Cogburn to go into Indian territory and bring Chaney in; LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for a murder in Texas, comes along for his own purposes.
Filmed in the sere sepia tones befitting the 19th-century West, "True Grit" has the look, feel and sound of that era, its characters speaking in the courtly, declamatory style that can first strike the ear as mannered but soon takes on the cadence of folk poetry.
Nowhere does that language reach more musical heights than in an early set piece, when Mattie negotiates to sell back some ponies her father purchased from Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews). The pair's ensuing who's-on-first roundelay playfully establishes the governing ethos of "True Grit," in which Old Testament values of retribution and redemption comfortably coexist with ribbing good fun. More than anything, the scene announces that, although Rooster is the character to whom the title refers, it's his young employer, goad and conscience who will emerge as the movie's most primal and memorable force.
"I admire your sand," Stonehill says wearily, finally giving in to Mattie's superior haggling skills. And so will the viewer, as this precocious, courageous young woman single-mindedly pursues her course of justice (this is a movie in which lawyers are invoked more often than in a John Grisham thriller). In many ways, Mattie is the spiritual great-great-grandmother of Marge Gunderson, who played the same kind of ethical center in the Coens' 1996 masterpiece, "Fargo." Like that film, "True Grit" evinces none of the snarky ironic distance that can sometimes mark and mar a Coen brothers production. Here, the film's considerable humor comes not from the filmmakers' own superior remove but from the characters themselves.
That shift in perspective, it turns out, makes all the difference. It will surprise none of the Coens' fans that "True Grit" is a technically accomplished movie; by now, their mastery of every cinematic element is well established, from writing and casting to cinematography, editing and sound design. But unlike, say, "No Country for Old Men," in which technical brilliance was put to the service of a nihilistic enterprise, "True Grit" concerns itself with something enduring and real, as a young woman grapples with the cost of so adamantly claiming the high ground. "True Grit" has sweep and scope and entertainment value to burn, but it's Mattie who invests even the grandest aesthetic elements with meaning. Given the choice between following a serial killer with a stun gun and a 14-year-old girl fired by fierce moral certitude, I'll take the one with the sand.
True Grit rrr (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence, including disturbing images.