True Grit started out as a novel in 1968 by Charles Portis and was later adapted into a film the following year. John Wayne portrayed the iconic character of Rooster Cogburn in the film and won his only Academy Award for Best Actor. In this new adaptation of the novel, by writers and directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, the focus, like in the novel, is on Mattie Ross instead of that of Cogburn. Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen year old girl who wants to avenge her father's death after he is killed by a drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She asks eyepatch wearing U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon) to help her bring Chaney to justice and after some nudging, both men agree and eventually see eye-to-eye with young Mattie.
This is, without a doubt, a true Western in the classical sense of the word. We see a world that has yet to be effected by technological and social change and we have rebellious anti-heroes who live in a world that is brutal and not always fair. There are codes of honor that are not always followed in these tales on morality, but the spirit and the struggle that the Western frontier brings on is always what we find ourselves enjoying the most in these films. This is the Coen brothers take on the genre. It is both unique and faithful to what one would expect from mixing their writing and directing style with a Western story. Technically, No Country for Old Men was a modern Western, but this is much more classical and I'll talk about that more in a little bit.
My first order of praise is that this film has such a great cast. Jeff Bridges worked with the Coens' on The Big Lebowski and Josh Brolin worked with them on No Country for Old Men. This is Damon's first film with the brothers and he fits right in reciting their dialogue. The true newcomer both for them and for the movie industry itself comes in the form of Hailee Steinfeld. One of the things that makes this a better film than the original is that it's the girl who has the true grit. This isn't a Jeff Bridges vehicle in the same way the 1969 film was just another Western starring John Wayne. This is a deadpan take on all of those Western themes I just mentioned and Steinfeld does a fantastic job of holding it all together. We see her character grow on screen as she holds her own against all of the principal actors. The story relies on her character and for such a young girl, her performance is flawless. She conveys both intelligence and innocence very well.
Jeff Bridges has a greater screen presence than Wayne did. This character certainly isn't as iconic as his previous Coen brothers role as the Dude, but it is a fine supporting performance from a legendary performer. Matt Damon continues to be the most versatile actor working in the industry as his character is part badass and part Dudley Do-Right. Brolin plays a cowardly villain who in a few scenes manages to still leave quite an impression. Barry Pepper also does a great job playing the leader of a gang who is harboring Chaney and ends up regretting it when he finds himself at the other end of Rooster's gun barrel. I take it my point has been realized that this movie has quite a fantastic ensemble and the Coen brothers always find fascinating actors to play bit parts here and there.
A lot of people were surprised that this film got a PG-13 rating because normally the Coens and violence can get extreme. Well this is certainly not an exception. The violence here isn't fun, it's as realistic as it was back when the Coens' made their first film in the mid-80's. Carter Burwell delivers a very nice score and Roger Deakins always makes everything look fantastic. Technically speaking, the Coens are still bringing us their best. I actually would just like to take a second to point out that I don't dislike a single Coen brothers movie. Sure, some aren't as good as others, but I find that none could be called outright bad. They might possibly be my favorite directors working today.
Now to return to how the Coens have chosen to interpret this story with their beautifully sharp and decisive dialogue, this is arguably the most un-Coen brothers the Coen brothers could get. They don't go outrageously outside their comfort zone like they did last year with A Serious Man, but they give this film a very unique feeling. This is the Coens' attempting a tired-out genre and they give it all of their flair. These guys are just too good at storytelling and I couldn't think of two filmmakers as adventurous as these guys to end another year of film viewing on. Once again, they've delivered another movie I can find very little fault with.