Of what does true grit consist? Grit, presumably, but also something else, something that makes it easy to distinguish from false grit. True Grit the film consists of a young teenage girl in 1880 Arkansas who hires an old, fat, drunk, half-blind marshal to help her track down her father’s killer. This has been a film before and, before that, a novel and, before that, a serialized story in the Saturday Evening Post and, before that, maybe some irrepressible meme of early American folklore. So the question isn’t only academic.
Here’s the answer: As far as the girl is concerned, true grit is the essential qualification for the marshal’s job. He has it but, as their time together reveals, so does she. A Texas ranger also joins their quest. He has some grit, too, but his seems falser. So the challenge for True Grit the film, which was filmed in New Mexico, is to honor and renew its own familiarity. This isn’t a problem for filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed it together, and enlisted newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the girl; Jeff Bridges as the marshal; Josh Brolin, briefly, as the killer; and Matt Damon as the ranger. Also, Roger Deakins’ cinematography captures wintry moods and landscapes.
Today, any movie Western will seem like a nostalgic genre exercise, especially a remake of one that already reeked of anachronism when it was Oscar-bait for John Wayne in the late 1960s. But the Coens have gotten away with nostalgic genre exercises since they got started, usually by counteracting sentimentalism with a coolly ironic sort of anthropology, as they do here. True Grit isn’t exactly a remake: They’ve gone back to its first recorded source, the fiction of Charles Portis.
It seems safe to assume that the Coens were attracted to Portis’ mordant humor and weird locutions, and that their actors were, too. This isn’t just Jeff Bridges imitating John Wayne. For one thing, he wears the patch on the opposite eye. For another, he sounds more like he’s imitating Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Whereas the talkative, tightly braided Steinfeld—avoiding contractions and uttering colloquialisms always as if they’re in quotation marks—sounds like the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Sleep well, Little Blackie,” she tells her horse, robotically. “I have a notion that tomorrow we will reach our object. We are ‘hot on the trail.’” And, of course, Damon has a healthy share of too-earnest talk as well, feeding his occasional need to insist that he’s capable of playing an oaf. In those moments when the point is that the ranger is trying too hard, so is the movie.
Otherwise, it’s great fun—a crafty deadpan caricature of archetypal rough justice and, accordingly, true enough.
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
With Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges
Regal Stadium 14