The Coens's track record with remakes (remember their miserable take on The Ladykillers ?) and the fact that I’ve found myself recoiling at the mannered quirks and misanthropy of their last couple of films didn’t make True Grit an especially appealing prospect for me. Well, surprise: the film turns out, against the odds, to be one of the brothers’ most entertaining and certainly most emotionally satisfying works. The 1969 film version with John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell casts a long shadow; indeed, it seems to be screened on British TV just about every other week. But, like Rowan Joffe’s just-released Brighton Rock, the new True Grit succeeds in carving out its own niche. This it achieves by returning to the Charles Portis novel, and restoring the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld here), the teenage girl who employs the US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down the murderer of her father, to her position as narrator of the tale. The result is a stylish and involving piece of work that ultimately hits harder and cuts deeper than the original film.
Despite some nicely achieved touches of absurdist humour, there’s a pleasing straightfowardness and lack of self-consciousness to True Grit: you’re immediately pulled into Mattie’s quest, rather than feeling that you’re simply watching the Coens “doing” a Western. Pleasures are many: from Roger Deakins’s beautiful cinematography to the Coens’ astute and unexpectedly affectionate screenplay. And of course there are the three main actors. The remarkable newcomer Steinfeld renders Mattie’s doggedness at once admirable and comic, Matt Damon is funny and surprising as the Texas Ranger, and Bridges’s performance as Rooster is, well, a barn-stormer. They’re superb sparring partners throughout. The Coens’s savvy here even shows in their choice of music to conclude the movie: Iris DeMent’s celestial version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” playing over the end credits, captures precisely the tone of Protestant stoicism and resilience with which the film is infused. Highly recommended.