How do you revisit a curtain call? On June 11, 1969, Henry Hathaway’s film adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit opened in the United States. It was the swan song of a dying genre: the wide-screen, Technicolor western, in which good and evil squared off on the sunbaked American prairie. The reviews were favorable, the box office grosses solid. John Wayne’s exuberantly hammy performance as the drunken federal marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn would earn the star the Oscar that had long eluded him. But just one week after True Grit, Sam Peckinpah’s brutal The Wild Bunch hit theaters—and immediately rendered Hathaway’s mostly bloodless, G-rated vision of the American West irrelevant. In the following decades, the western was parodied (1974’s Blazing Saddles), deconstructed (1992’s Unforgiven), and postmodernized (2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), among many other treatments. But the idea of once again investing the genre with pageantry, plainspoken morality, and family-friendly comedy—the qualities that had made westerns a staple of the big studios for generations—would come to be seen as folly; indeed, when Kevin Costner tried to do it, with 2003’s Open Range, most critics sneered him right off the screen.
In which case, leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to do exactly what we’d never expect of them and deliver us right back to square one. Their remake of True Grit, which opened late last month—just in time to radically alter the dynamics of this year’s Oscar race—is an unexpectedly old-fashioned and sincere effort from a pair of filmmakers who have earned a reputation for being glib pranksters. (In fact, the Coen brothers have done their share of postmodern tinkering when it comes to westerns. Witness their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, and their 2007 Best Picture–winning No Country for Old Men.) Yet True Grit, which was shot in Granger, Austin, and Blanco (the flat, barren landscapes provide the perfect correction to the mountain-framed vistas of the Colorado-based original), is hardly a musty retread. Instead the writer-directors imbue this movie with bursts of bloodshed, surreal whimsy, and distinctly Coen-esque humor—the “grit,” in other words, that went missing from Hathaway’s polished, bordering-on-synthetic version.
True Grit wastes no time at the outset, reducing the first ten minutes of Hathaway’s film to a few brusque sentences of voice-over exposition: On a horse-trading trip to Fort Smith, an Arkansas man is murdered by a former farmhand, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who eludes the local authorities and runs off. As the story commences, the murdered man’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), sets out from home to bring Chaney to justice. She hires Rooster (Jeff Bridges)—“a pitiless man, double tough”—as her bounty hunter, though he would rather link up with a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) who has been pursuing Chaney for the murder of a state senator from Waco.
This is, of course, the story of half the westerns ever made, which send God-fearing people on a journey into dicey terrain (the other half find the God-fearing people’s peaceful way of life beset by dicey outsiders). But the Coens don’t smirk at the shopworn premise, as they too frequently did in their gangster movie pastiche Miller’s Crossing (1990) and their screwball comedy pastiche The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Instead they invest themselves in the details of post–Civil War frontier America, from the rickety shops that line the dirt roads of Fort Smith and the rigid religiosity of Mattie (“I felt like Ezekiel, in the company of dry bones,” she says after a night spent sleeping at a mortuary) to the ruthless manner in which a hangman denies a condemned American Indian his last words by abruptly pulling a hood over his head. There’s an especially impressive scene early on, when the audience first meets Rooster, who is being cross-examined by a defense lawyer at the trial of a recently captured criminal. In the low-lit courtroom, the interrogation carries on and on: The Coens seem to want to slow down time and then rewind it altogether. Wearing an eye patch like the one Wayne sported but speaking in a mumbly, marble-mouthed drawl, Bridges proves transporting. Not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis in 2007’s There Will Be Blood (and very much unlike Wayne), the star gets completely lost inside this character, so that we start to feel as if we’re staring at something otherworldly—a collodion-processed photograph that’s been unearthed from a time capsule and brought to life.
One major reservation must be registered: For all its unshowy verisimilitude, True Grit never quite rises to the level of the Coens’ finest efforts. Plainly put, it’s lacking a wow factor: those one or two sequences that send your heart racing and your brain reeling. The protagonists’ run-in with a gang of robbers, for instance, is intriguingly executed: We watch La Boeuf confront the men from the point of view of Rooster and Mattie, who are perched in the hills a hundred yards away. But neither this scene nor the climactic one—which traps Mattie in a cave as a group of rattlesnakes wake from their slumber—comes close to matching the tautness and visual invention of the motel room cat-and-mouse chase in No Country for Old Men or the botched kidnapping in Fargo (1996).
Most likely, though, you’ll be taking too much pleasure in the performances to feel cheated. In the original, Glen Campbell didn’t seem to know what to make of La Boeuf, who displays both a gee-whiz earnestness and a pervy dark streak (at one point, he spanks Mattie in an attempt to beat the willfulness out of her). Damon manages to reconcile those discordant personality strains, playing him as an endearing buffoon, a bit too boastful of his Texas heritage, who nonetheless stumbles his way to redemption. (Politically minded viewers may even wonder if his performance is a kind of parody or backhanded homage to George W. Bush.) The cranky exchanges between him and Bridges—including an instant-classic bit revolving around a cornbread-shooting contest—provide the comic backbone of a movie that might otherwise have turned too self-serious.
As for Steinfeld, whom the Coens settled upon after a nationwide talent search, she is True Grit’s beating heart and driving force: an intensely purposeful girl whose sense of righteousness will not waver. There’s little of the cutesy spunk that Kim Darby brought to the part; Steinfeld’s Mattie has no time to be charming, not when there’s a killer to be hunted down. Whether bartering with a horse trader or facing off against Chaney in a stream, she goes toe-to-toe with much bigger entities, refusing to flinch, crying only in private. If the original was ultimately a tribute to a Hollywood lion in winter, the new True Grit subtly shifts the focus to Mattie and suggests something else entirely: that while men might provide the muscle, it’s a woman’s strength that finally gets things done.