For film buffs of a certain age, say those who were film geeks by their preteen years in the late ’60s, the phrase “true grit” conjures up both misty and immediate images of a minor classic of a film. The 1969 original was a blissfully dry and quirky variation on the Western theme, with eye-patched John Wayne, plucky teenager Kim Darby, and Glen Campbell as the unlikely posse in search of a ne’er-do-well.
In the gospel according to the Coen Brothers’ rousingly and meditatively fine “remake,” they have gone faithfully back to the first original source, Charles Portis’s 1968 novel. For this maverick auteur team, delving beautifully into the Western genre after years of working their neo-noir and Southern Gothic-ish turf, it’s all about the atmosphere, the metaphorical potential, and the Wild West’s deliciously ornate language. This we know from the first biblical quote presaging the film: “The wicked flee when none pursueth.”
Of course, pursuit is the lingua franca and the narrative machinery of Grit’s story and film. At the center of this searchers’ tale is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, a stunning first-timer), whose father hath been summarily and cruelly kilt by the rather numbskulled Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, with some of his W. doofus-ness intact). Enter the rogue U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Santa Barbara’s Jeff Bridges, drawling righteously and continuing his winning streak on the screen), whom we first meet only audibly from inside an outhouse in a startlingly lovely, luminous extended shot early in the film. Mattie is full of grit, gumption, and articulate use of the English language. Cogburn is more the instinctual primal hunter. And by-the-bookish lawman Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, whose yeoman acting is only slightly better than Campbell’s) gets in the way more often than not.
To this tale, the Coens bring a slow but steady cinematic pacing and flair, peppered with strategic but spare violence and eloquence of a high order. As usual, the Coens are joined by regular collaborators who are tautly in sync with, and also critical to helping realize, the sound and vision of a particular film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’s lean, airy, and frontier-centric lenswork and composer Carter Burwell’s lightly irony-spiced and hymn-informed musical score complete the picture in the truest, sweetest, and grittiest sense.