REVIEW: The Coen Brothers Pull Off an Almost-Great True Grit

Movieline Score:

People who love Charles Portis' 1967 novel True Grit -- and you will know them when you meet them, even if they do not wear an eyepatch and do not forego the modern convenience known as the contraction -- love it with a fierceness that shouldn't be crossed. Joel and Ethan Coen must have known what they were getting themselves into when they set out to adapt it. If they'd failed to capture the tone and flavor of the book, or messed with too many of its roughhewn details, the mark of shame upon them would be too great to bear.

But even if their True Grit isn't the greatest imaginable adaptation of this great little book, it's at least a damn good one. The story is set in eighteen-seventy-something. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has left her home in Arkansas to trek into Indian Territory, vowing to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a drunken no-gooder. The movie opens with a voiceover from Mattie -- the grown Mattie, looking back over many years -- and a vignette in which a dead man's body lies slumped among drifting snowflakes, an American Gothic snow globe. (The cinematographer is Roger Deakins. Who else?)

Mattie is a no-nonsense mite with a forthright manner and a mean head for figures; she wears her hair in two sturdy braids whose tips have never seen the inside of any inkwell, believe you me. But she knows she needs help tracking down the outlaw Tom Chaney (played, when he finally appears, by a comically simian Josh Brolin). After asking around town, she seeks out the grizzly, gun-crazy, one-eyed marshall known as Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

He actually looks pretty presentable when we see him early on, testifying in a courtroom: Dressed in a stiff suit, sunlit dust motes dancing around him, he basks in the center of a slow, circular pan. Later, when Mattie tracks him down at home -- the cluttered backroom of the shop of one of the town's Asian businesspeople, though in the parlance of the time, he'd be called a "Chinaman" -- his magnificent girth is testing the limits of a stained mattress, and he's wearing a union suit the color of cream streaked with grease. Rooster is a rough guy, but he agrees to help Mattie, at least for the right price. He also appears to be slightly impressed by the way she expertly rolls a cigarette for him, informing him authoritatively, "Your makings are too dry."

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