Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Time was when True Grit was synonymous with John Wayne. The Duke bagged the only Oscar of his career with his central turn as a jaded federal marshal helping a girl bring her father's murderer to justice in the 1969 adaptation of the Charles Portis novel. And now along come the Coens to stir things up with a return to the source material. By staying loyal to Portis' unsentimental prose and gallows humour, the brothers have reimagined True Grit as a breathtakingly beautiful Western and a comment on the American condition.
The film begins with a quote from the Bible: 'The wicked flee when none pursueth.' But that's not the entire phrase - the unspoken second half says 'but the righteous are bold as a lion'. This half could describe 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), a sharp, pragmatic Presbyterian thoroughly versed in business talk and legal doctrine. She hires the out-of-shape, out-of-place marshal Reuben 'Rooster' Cogburn (Bridges, above with Steinfeld) to catch Tom Chaney (Brolin), who fled into 'Indian territory' after killing Mattie's father.
An older Mattie, narrating the story, says Chaney 'could have walked his horse' out of town after his crime, 'for not a soul in that city would be bothered to give chase'. Mattie's bleak outlook on the warped social values of those times reveals True Grit's link with that other Coen Brothers' reflection on ebbing America, No Country for Old Men.
Mattie is a younger version of the latter's film old sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Both are aghast as their ideals of social harmony and justice wane and unfettered violence and cynicism take over. As Mattie embarks on revenge, she gradually realises the collateral damage her vengeance can inflict - on people, on animals, on her, on Cogburn, or on the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon), who joins the pair to hunt down Chaney for his role in the killing of a senator.
It's actually LaBoeuf who complains how their adventure has gone from being a manhunt 'into a debauch' as the trickle of gore becomes a river.
Through this odd triumvirate, the Coens draw out comedy, drama and historical allegory. The three leads keep up their acerbic, cracking dialogue, and Bridges and Damon steer their characters clear of parody.
But it's Steinfeld who shines as Mattie. She is at once the determined protagonist and the wily observer of the descending chaos. With Roger Deakins' cinematography, True Grit is a striking, contemporary-tinged entry to a genre long in need of an update.
True Grit opens today