The most important scene in the Coen brothers’ new adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit occurs early on. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross has journeyed to the Old West town where her father was shot and killed to retrieve the body and also begin her single-minded quest to bring the murderer to justice. While there, she seeks to sell back a pair of ponies that her father purchased from Colonel Stonehill, the local horse trader. The scene is played for comedy, thanks in no small part to the wonderfully performance of mounting exasperation by Dakin Matthews (who’s used to highly fraught confrontations in his day job) as the set-upon trader. The scene explains how Mattie has enough money to hire a professional lawman to track down her scurrilous foe, but, more crucially, it firmly establishes her own formidable nature. By the end of the scene, it’s fully believable that Mattie could cause this seasoned, cynical man to bend to her will, and, by extension, every successful act of cajoling that follows makes perfect sense. With one perfectly constructed and executed scene, the Coens put the power to drive the narrative any direction needed in the hands of their youthful protagonist.
This is the sort of effortless command of storytelling mechanics that Joel and Ethan Coen have when they are at their best, and True Grit is yet another mighty peak in the mountain range of their filmography. There may have been times when taking on a western would have inspired the siblings to indulge in cheeky tomfoolery, making a movie that spends as much time slyly satirizing the conventions of the genre as it did indulging in them to elevate their tale. That protective ironic distancing seems more and more a thing of the past, as the Coens instead make a film that is devoted and majestic. There is plenty of humor, but it’s always derived from sturdily built characters, including the two men who join Mattie on her quest: the ravaged, pickled marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn, played with a Sling Blade guttural slur and crafty reserves of spirit by Jeff Bridges, and the conceited Texas Ranger La Boeuf, played by Matt Damon. And the Coens correctly read that the heart of the original Portis story is Mattie herself, played by relative newcomer Hailee Steinfeld with an endearing resolve and welcome acknowledgment that, for all her strength, she remains a kid who may not be in over her head, but is precariously close to slipping beneath the waves.
The film is fair-minded about the grim bloodiness of the mission without ever becoming exploitative. It is violent and dark, and coldly efficient in its depiction in a way that suits the grizzled gunfighters that populate the landscape. There’s no real attempt at revisionism or reinvention of the studio western as much as there’s a conviction to do it correctly while still planing off the hoariest elements. The film feels both classic and modern, wisely bridging the distance between its cinematic forbears and the sort of painfully aware existential deconstruction that often threatens to turn modern stabs at westerns into airless drags. It is pure in its accomplishment, displaying a mastery of every bit of filmmaking, including Carter Burwell’s striking, stirring musical score and the beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins. It is lean and fierce, with nary a wasted moment. It lives up to the satisfied appraisal offered up by Mattie that provides the title. The Coens, and their art, is bursting with truest of grit.