While the ultimate praise goes to Portis for divining such a compelling tale, the Coen brothers do an exemplary job of re-adapting this unique story to the screen, this time envisioning the gruff, worn-out and washed-up Cogburn as Jeff Bridges, who proved his humility in last year's Crazy Heart, which won him an Oscar and made him seem the perfect choice for the one-eyed, drunken Cogburn.
In one of the film’s less ambitious moves, True Grit begins by relying on voice-over narration by the film’s heroine, Mattie Ross (delightful newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), who explains how she set out to Fort Smith, Arkansas at the tender age of 14 to track down her father’s murderer, the dim-witted Tom Cheney (played with flare and precision by Josh Brolin), intending to either shoot him down single-handedly, or drag him back home to hang for his crime. Along her travels, she seeks out Cogburn, who has a reputation for being the “meanest” tracker in the area. The savvy, resourceful Mattie interprets this as meaning that Cogburn has “true grit,” something she requires in a man to help her find her father’s killer. She ties up some loose ends on her father’s estate to allow her to hire Cogburn for his manhunting skills.
In the meantime, a pompous Texas Ranger who goes by the name of LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is hunting Cheney for other crimes, and he throws himself into the mix with Cogburn, figuring there’s strength in numbers. In no way does he consider a young girl to be cut out for such travels, and when Mattie insists on tagging along to protect her investment, the two are pitted against one another in a showdown that forces Cogburn to take a side. The rest of their manhunt is filled with tension, as each character constantly bickers with the other two, proving that three is a crowd, especially in matters of life or death.
In matters of onscreen chemistry, however, these three are simply perfect together. Bridges, Damon, and even Steinfeld — who may be green but possesses tremendous heart — bring everything they’ve got to their respective characters, who are compelling as individuals while still functioning brilliantly as an ensemble. They are all irreverent in their own way, well-rounded, and sharply acted. Cogburn is immensely likable for all the reasons he is also irritating, not to mention his simple charisma, unapologetic attitude, and reserved sense of paternal duty — qualities that Bridges executes with expected elegance. Damon brings a good deal of humor to LaBoeuf, whose hopeless machismo and shortsighted narcissism come across as realistic and all too human. Steinfeld portrays Mattie with wisdom and bravery beyond her years without exaggerating her assertiveness and making her influence over the rest of the group seem unrealistic — a mistake made in the first film adaptation.
Which brings us the unavoidable comparison between the 1969 and 2010 versions of True Grit and the question everyone is asking: which is better? At the risk of sounding too diplomatic, it’s really a matter of taste. Wayne, Glen Campbell (1969’s LaBoeuf), and company simply weren’t operating in an age of cinema that was comfortable doing justice to the emotional depth of the novel. While both films stand out in the genre, the first True Grit is far closer to a typical shoot-em-up adventure, while this Coen brothers’ telling packs a punch that will stick with you over time and urge you to play out the events over and over in your head.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld, Barry Pepper
Director(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 110 minutes