True Grit is the best Coen brothers film since O Brother, Where Out Thou, and also the most enjoyable. There is hardly a trace of self-consciousness to spoil the pleasure of its lean 110 minutes. It is dark and funny without lapsing into the gratuitous misanthropy that has marked some of the Coens' work. Everything is perfectly crafted and refreshingly low-key.
This astringent True Grit is, of course, a remake of the 1969 western that earned John Wayne his only best actor Oscar as the one-eyed, hard-drinking US marshal, Rooster Cogburn. But it would be more accurate to describe it as a second and more faithful adaptation of the cult novel by Charles Portis.
It is also -- and this is perhaps the most surprising thing about it - true to its genre. The Coens have made a straight, unembarrassed modern western, not a satire or a knowing play on the western's conventions. It is modern because it takes place in a brutal version of the wild west, familiar from Unforgiven (though it does not revel in sadism and suffering like some of the early "revisionist" westerns).
Also, like the cult HBO series Deadwood, it takes place in a culture that is recognisably Victorian, one in which religion and the cult of respectability affect people's lives even on the lawless frontier.
The story is narrated by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) 25 years after the events she describes. A 14-year-old girl when her father is murdered by his hired hand, Tom Chaney, she leaves her mother behind and goes to town to buy a coffin. She also resolves to get justice for her father's murder by hiring a US marshal to follow the killer into Indian territory. The marshal she chooses is Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because she feels that the task will require "true grit" and because she has heard that he is "a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don't enter his thinking". Unfortunately, it turns out that he is a lazy drunk as well as a ruthless killer of criminals .
Cogburn agrees to take the mission but not to take her with him. He also goes against her wishes by joining forces with a preening Texas Ranger called LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is pursuing Chaney for other crimes. Mattie, however, persuades the two gunmen to let her come along. She must see justice done for her father's blood though it may come at considerable cost.
The marvellous thing about the way Mattie is written and played is that there is nothing cute about her. And unlike Kim Darby who played her in the original, she is clearly just a girl rather than a teenager on the verge of womanhood. Mattie's great advantages over the men she has to deal with are her waspish use of language, her unexplained knowledge of the law, and their tendency to underestimate her determination. You can see her forcing herself to be brave in a world that is genuinely dangerous. And after a while it becomes clear that it is she who exemplifies "true grit".
Much more than in the original 1969 version, Mattie's complex, not always attractive character is at the centre of the story. And for all the restrained effectiveness of Bridges's performance as Cogburn, she is unquestionably the star of the film. Although Steinfeld has received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, she should be up for best actress for this astonishingly accomplished debut.
That said, all of the acting is perfectly pitched, thanks to the Coens' superlative skills as directors and, it should be said, as writers: one of the chief joys of True Grit is its dialogue. Unlike the Wayne film which relied on slapstick for its laughs, much of the humour grows out of the formal but somehow always believable diction of the characters.
Lovers of the original may miss its spectacular Colorado landscapes. This film is shot in harsher wilderness. Nonetheless, it is visually gorgeous thanks to the photography by Roger Deakin.