The Coen Brothers are so good at Westerns that anyone else who wants permission to make one should have to get their written permission. Their characters don’t talk, they spit bullets.
Their photography doesn’t dazzle you, it opens up and swallows you into its desolate prairie maw. And their stories don’t resonate, they grab you by the scruff of your neck, sit you on their collective knee and spin you a tale that sets your eyes agape with wild wonder.
Drawing on the same earthy, rawhide-tough feel of No Country for Old Men, the Coens take a legendary Charles Portis novel, toss it into the air and shoot eight holes in it before it hits the ground. The movie is so good I the original True Grit has to be considered a crappy premake.
The 1969 version of the film, for which John Wayne won a best picture Oscar, starred Glen Campbell, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall. The new film boasts an equally impressive lineup of actors, not the least of which is 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who stands toe to toe with physically imposing, magnetic performers such as Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin with commendable authority.
Steinfeld plays 14-year-old Mattie, who is out to set her family’s affairs in order following the murder of her father by a slow-witted outlaw (Brolin). The Coens imbued their dialogue with a David Mamet-like speed, letting Steinfeld thoroughly own scenes in which she negotiates the price of her father’s casket and verbally whips down a conniving horse salesman.
In a world of his own as Rooster Cogburn is a fattened-up, eyepatch-sporting Bridges, who growls his way through pitch-perfect, oatmeal-thick colloquialisms, making like that scary great uncle you always tried to shy away from at Thanksgiving. A marshal who puts his services up for hire for the right price, Rooster accepts Mattie’s offer of $100 to track down the varmint. Mattie insists on tagging along, pulling her weight through an endless series of shivering nights, grueling horse rides and mystifying run-ins with folks on the trail.
Sometimes joining in as a delightfully awkward third wheel is Texas Ranger La Boeuf, played with grisly angst by Damon. A lout who leers at Mattie and lashes out with insipid rage at inopportune moments, the mysterious lawman hides heroism beneath layers of dangerous buffoonery.
What seems like a boilerplate story comes alive through the passionate performances and finely tuned narrative, which sinks its hooks into you then drags you on a ride that grows increasingly wild, panic-ridden and beautiful. Characters bond and drift apart, bad guys show their softer side, making you feel guilty for cheering the heroes to blow them away, and every line of dialogue sings like soliloquies out of a 19th century poetry slam.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Hailee Steinfeld and Barry Pepper. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the Charles Portis novel. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13.