That old-time American religion of vengeance runs like a river through True Grit, a comic-serious tale about some nasty, brutish times. Beautifully adapted by Joel and Ethan Coen from the parodic western novel by Charles Portis, it turns on a 14-year-old Arkansas girl who hires a “one-eyed fat man” to hunt down her father’s killer. First published in 1968, Portis’ tall tale was brought to the screen the next year custom-fitted for John Wayne, who rode the role of that fat man, Rooster Cogburn, straight to an Oscar. Now it’s the thinner scene-stealer Jeff Bridges who sits and sometimes drunkenly slumps in the saddle.
Much as he did in the raucously entertaining original film directed by Henry Hathaway, Rooster enters on his best behavior, seated in a courtroom amid a fog of cigar smoke and conspicuous lies. The pale, ghostly light comes courtesy of the Coens’ frequent cinematographer, Roger Deakins, while many of the twisty, funny sentences have been plucked by the filmmakers right from the novel. A deputy US marshal, Rooster has attracted the interest of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in a terrific film debut), a half-pint who, with her bloodlust and severely braided hair, is an authentic American Gothic. As she listens to Rooster recount his bloody deeds and high body count, her eyes shine with a true believer’s excitement.
Avenging her father and keeping close track of her family’s expenses are what preoccupy Mattie, a richly conceived and written eccentric, as memorable on the page as she is now on screen. Softened for the first film (in which she was played by a 21-year-old Kim Darby, in a bob), she has been toughed up again by the Coens so that she resembles the seemingly humorless if often unintentionally humorous scripture-quoting martinet of Portis’ imagination. At times she brings to mind D. H. Lawrence’s famed formulation that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” At other times, as when she wears her dead father’s oversize coat and hat, she looks like a foolish child left to perilous play.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Jeff Bridges (Rooster Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney), Barry Pepper (Lucky Ned Pepper), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), Bruce Green (Harold Parmalee), Roy Lee Jones (Yarnell) and Elizabeth Marvel (adult Mattie)
Those dangers are telegraphed early by the public hanging that occurs soon after the story opens. Mattie, along with a family worker, Yarnell (Roy Lee Jones), has traveled from her Yell County home to Fort Smith, Arkansas, to identify her father, who has been gunned down by another worker, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After doing so, she sends Yarnell home and gets down to business, first by settling her father’s accounts. She then hires Rooster because she hears that he has “true grit,” a quality that mostly seems to entail a disregard for preserving the lives of his prisoners. It’s no wonder she watches the hanging with such avidity, and no wonder too that she takes off after Chaney, armed with Rooster and her father’s heavy gun.
Their journey leads them into Indian country (with few Indians) and increasingly tense and violent encounters featuring corpses, severed fingers and a bad, bad man (Barry Pepper, spewing fear and spittle). On occasion a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who calls himself LaBeef, joins in the search. Wearing jangling spurs and a luxurious mustache that sits on his lip like a spoiled Persian cat, LaBoeuf hopes to bag Chaney for a large reward. Dead or alive, everyone in this story — snaggletooth thief or boardinghouse owner — has a price either on his head or in mind, usually in the form of the dollars and cents one person hopes to extract from another. “Why do you think I am paying you,” Mattie asks Rooster, “if not to have my way?”