‘True Grit’: Modern Cool Meets the Authentic West (Review)

True Grit
Jeff Bridges as Rooster and Haillie Steinfeld as Mattie. (Paramount Pictures)

It’s the voice. Charles Portis created Mattie Ross in his novel “True Grit,” first published in 1968, and it’s the authentic voice of Mattie — righteous, forceful, Scripture-quoting, judgmental — that gives the story such a distinctive flavor. She’s an old woman in 1928, writing about the events that occurred after her father was shot dead by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney. She was only 14 years of age, but was determined to avenge her father, and knew she was the only one to do it.

The novel is lively and funny, filled with succinct character descriptions (“Mama was never any good at sums and could hardly spell cat”) and telling details (“The three killers dropped to judgment with a bang. A noise went up from the crowd as though they had been struck a blow”). Mattie’s voice is predominant, of course, but ornery U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn comes through just as truly as Mattie, as does Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.

The Coen Brothers have kept the guts and retained the spirit of Portis’ novel for their spirited, highly entertaining new version of “True Grit,” starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, pronounced “La Beef” as only a true Texas would tackle a French moniker.

Their take is very respectful to the source material, even more so than the 1969 film version directed by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne in his Academy Award-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn. That version was hampered by Kim Darby as Mattie, who is more a petulant child than a determined young woman, and by Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf, who acts as though he’s constipated. Still, the picture holds up well as rousing entertainment, thanks to Hathaway’s sure grasp of the material and Wayne’s embrace of the character, a “one-eyed fat man” with a weakness for liquor and a preference for killing outlaws rather than bringing them in alive to stand trial.

Whereas the earlier film began with a dramatization of the events that led to the death of Mattie’s father, the Coens start in a more oblique manner with a citation from the Bible (the same quote that concludes the first chapter of Portis’ novel) and a somber nighttime shot, over which Mattie’s laconic narration is heard. It’s immediately more stylish and subtle, yet also serves to establish the new film’s point of view: This is Mattie’s story of how she avenged her father.

Rooster Cogburn is secondary, and his introductory scene tells us something about the differing approaches of the two film versions. Both scenes were invented by the filmmakers (neither were present in the novel). Hathaway presents Rooster as a dynamic, fear-inspiring, legendary character, standing tall and kicking a convict in the butt. The Coens present Rooster unseen in an outhouse, slurring his words in response to Mattie’s inquiries.

Wayne’s Rooster was a man who thinks he is keeping his faults (drinking, primarily) under wraps. Bridges’ Rooster is more upfront about his faults; it’s his strengths that are only gradually revealed.

The upshot is that the Coens have crafted a version that reflects a welcome degree of their own sensibility, with blackly comic moments sitting comfortably amidst authentic details of a matter-of-fact Old West, where death can come at any moment and there’s not too terribly much that a body can do about it.

As Rooster, Bridges is not “better” than Wayne; the character is different, and Bridges gives himself fully to his foolish foibles and general air of distraction. The film is bolstered immeasurably by Steinfeld and Damon. Steinfeld gets under the skin of Mattie Ross. It’s not only that the actress is much closer to the age of her character than Darby, it’s that she’s a strong woman who will definitely see that justice is served. It’s a bracing, refreshing performance.

Damon has the self-control to rein in his boyish charm in service of his character. LaBoeuf is confident about his own skills, and is also smart enough to learn, eventually, when others are needed to help him achieve his goals. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper don’t appear until late in the picture, but both contribute strong, saucy turns as bad men.

Of their 15 feature films, “True Grit” may represent the most commercial, mainstream project ever undertaken by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. That doesn’t mean it’s a compromise, however. Evidently they peered into the heart of Charles Portis and his great creation, Mattie Ross, and understood how to bring her story to the screen. “True Grit” is a triumph.

“True Grit” opens wide across the Metroplex on Wednesday, December 22.

Via Google: Theater Listings and Showtimes for “True Grit”