Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.
Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus.
“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”
The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.