Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld in her feature debut) is a quick-witted and willful 14-year-old girl, come to the end of the railroad line in some dusty Arkansas town to collect her dear departed father. But she’s more interested in collecting Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin: Jonah Hex), the cur who killed him, and seeing the murderer hanged. By barter, wit and resolve she recruits crusty marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges: Tron: Legacy) and ornamented Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon: Hereafter) to her cause. Together they set out into Choctaw country amid outcasts and outlaws to track down the killer.
The eccentric, gritty manhunt of present is a departure from Hollywood’s folksier veneer of Technicolor yore. Writer/director duo Ethan and Joel Coen adapted their film directly from Charles Portis’ novel, bypassing the influence of John Wayne’s classic. In so doing, there’s less of the hammy and more of the odd and vicious.
This is a definite plus. The Coen Brothers play to their strengths by drinking from the source and crafting a smart script totally devoid of such casual speech as contractions. Dialogue is positively poetic, at times almost Shakespearean for the smirking formality, witty spar and esoteric colloquialisms. Enlightened speech stands in stark contrast to an undercurrent of cruelty and survivalism, whether in Cogburn’s bloody resolve, Mattie’s single-minded demand for retribution or offhand disregard for the occasional Indian.
A simple and insubstantial story serves as tidy framework. Early scenes center on Mattie negotiating and persuading her way toward revenge, building a solid foundation for the characters and quest. The Coens take care to craft a rich setting. Story unwinds a bit once the trio goes off into the wilds, proceeding almost accidentally. But rather than being a negative, this proves effective at transmitting the sense of shambling in the wilderness.
Violence bucks up frequently for quick and fierce conflict, carefully choreographed as flashpoints of messy reaction. Thumps and gunplay are raw and unstylized, blunt brutality that packs a punch without becoming gratuitous.
Bridges excels as a hard-bitten cuss in the pivotal role of Cogburn; after seeing him reduced to the Dude in cyberspace (Tron: Legacy) it’s refreshing to be reminded that the dude can act. He doesn’t try to mimic the Duke, instead trumping him with a grittier performance and growling viciousness. Damon is well cast as the pretty-boy Ranger and holds up as a fine foil to Bridges. Steinfeld, for her part, makes a grand debut as the willful catalyst.
All said, this is one sharp western that blazes a fresh path. Wayne’s True Grit remains a gem, but the Coens have crafted a very worthy alternate take. There’s room on the shelf for both, and any fan of westerns should certainly give this one a shot.