Leave it to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, to do right smart by True Grit, the 1968 Charles Portis novel that a year later became the Western that won John Wayne his only Oscar. Audiences remember Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the fat, one-eyed drunk of a U.S. marshal. But that’s about all that sticks. By staying true to Portis — the richness of his language runs through the film like a vein of comic gold — the Coens have crafted a vastly entertaining Wild West show that is memorable in every particular.
Don’t mind the PG-13 rating. Family fare hasn’t stopped the Coens from being playfully subversive or letting darkness encroach on the characters. With due respect to Jeff Bridges, who is killer good at playing the hell out of double-tough Rooster and his rusted nobility, the Coens wisely put their focus where Portis put it: on Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old dynamo from Arkansas who hires Rooster to bring in Tom Chaney (a sly, wicked Josh Brolin), the varmint who gunned down her daddy.
I don’t know where the Coens found Steinfeld, 13, but her star-is-born performance is worth shouting about. Steinfeld excels at Mattie’s Southern idioms, backed with Presbyterian steel. She’s Huck Finn as a teen diva. Just watch her outmaneuver a horse trader or slap around Matt Damon’s La Boeuf (pronounced “la beef”), the vain Texas ranger who deems her too unattractive and too young to rouse his interest. You’ll go nuts over Damon. He puts everything into the role and rides it to glory. La Boeuf hates it that Mattie insists on riding with him and Rooster into Oklahoma Indian territory, where Chaney is in cahoots with Lucky Ned Pepper (a terrific Barry Pepper). Cinematographer Roger Deakins outdoes himself with images of rugged beauty. Rooster’s two-gun, reins-in-his-teeth showdown (“Fill your hand, you son of a bitch”) lets the Dude do the Duke proud.
What makes True Grit a new classic for the Coens is the way the brothers absorb the unfairly unsung Portis into their DNA, like they did with Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men. True Grit is packed with action and laughs, plus a touching coda with an older Mattie, but it’s the dialogue that really sings. Great filmmaking. Great acting. Great movie. Saddle up.