No one is the same after encountering feisty, fearless and plain-spoken Mattie Ross, age 14, from near Dardanelle in Yell County, Ark. Not the other characters in the Charles Portis novel she dominates, and certainly not the filmmaking Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel.
The Coens corralled stars Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld and came away with "True Grit," one of their most broadly entertaining films yet. Mattie has a habit of turning people around, she really does.
That bleak but completely delightful Portis novel, in which a much older Mattie remembers the frontier West of the 1870s, has been charming and disconcerting people since it was published in 1968. The key reason is the vim and vigor of Mattie's irrepressible narrative voice, which more than one critic has compared favorably to Huck Finn's. Yes, it's that good.
The sentence that starts the book as well as the Coens' superior film introduces us to both the story and that singular narrator: "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."
That kind of a story has always attracted Hollywood, and in 1969 the veteran Henry Hathaway directed a version written by Marguerite Roberts that softened the book's ending. It featured Kim Darby as Mattie, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper in villainous supporting roles and John Wayne as one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. marshal Mattie turns to in her quest for vengeance, a role flamboyant enough to finally win Wayne the best actor Oscar.
The Coens, not known for softening anything, have restored the original's bleak, elegiac conclusion and as writer-directors have come up with a version that shares events with the first film but is much closer in tone to the book — think of the original crossed with Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven." Clearly recognizing a kindred spirit in Portis, sharing his love for eccentric characters and odd language, they worked hard, and successfully, at serving the buoyant novel as well as being true to their own black comic brio.
In this they had the help of their own formidable filmmaking skills and those of their experienced collaborators. Production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Mary Zophres have combined to create the sense of the West as a harsh, hardscrabble place, made up of wide open but unwelcoming spaces and towns without pity.
If Lucien Ballard, cinematographer on the John Wayne picture, showed us a world that was lush and green, as sharply shot by Coen regular Roger Deakins, this West is visually arid, an unsettling Big Empty where only bitterness and bile thrive.
This setting is matched stride for stride by the cast, with casting director Jo Edna Boldin nailing even the smallest speaking parts. The big names in the cast all do excellent work, but the biggest surprise is all but unknown Steinfeld. Mattie is the film's essential role, and though Steinfeld is but 14 and without major feature experience (Kim Darby was 21 when she played in the original), she nails it, handling the highly stylized language like she was born speaking it.
Perhaps being 14 has helped Steinfeld, helped her to intuitively connect with Mattie's no-nonsense stubbornness, her drop-dead determination not to be pushed around when she's in the right. Introduced in Fort Smith, Ark., distraught at the recent murder of her father, shot in cold blood by the miscreant Tom Chaney (Brolin), this is a young person in search of true grit who discovers it, among other places, in herself.
Determined to see Chaney dead and learning that he has fled to the Indian territories, where only U.S. marshals can make arrests, Mattie seeks advice on the best man for the job. When she's told that "the meanest one" is Rooster Cogburn, someone who is "a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking," she doesn't care that "he loves to pull a cork." This is the man for her.
Rooster, for his part, doesn't know what to make of Mattie or her non-negotiable demand that she be taken along on the search for her father's killer. As played by Bridges, this is a primitive, Paleolithic Cogburn, shrewdness and cunning shining through his one remaining eye. He tries, as the dour stockman Col. Stonehill (a wonderful Dakin Matthews) had tried earlier, to out-talk Mattie, but it is to no avail. Plus the cash money she offers — "I'm giving you the children's rate," he insists when she tries to negotiate a still lower rate — counts for a lot.
A third wheel gets added to this party soon enough, when a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is after Chaney for another crime, joins their party. A bit of a bragger and more than a bit stuck on himself, LaBoeuf is beautifully realized by Damon as someone whose Sharps carbine is envied but whose presence irritates all and sundry.
It wouldn't be fair to recount the adventures these three experience except to say they are as thrilling as any reader of the dime novels that likely inspired Portis would expect. Carter Burwell's music, with its frequent referencing of the vintage hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm," is a key part of the experience. When Iris DeMent's impeccable version of the hymn is heard on the soundtrack as the final credits roll, it's the perfect touch to end a film whose aim is always true.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release