Vengeance may be a dish best served cold, but the actual serving of it tends to be a hot mess. This is especially true when Joel and Ethan Coen are involved, as they have, over the years, specialized in tales of killings and crime where things tend to go awry, with violent consequences. In True Grit, a remake of the 1969 film that starred John Wayne and Kim Darby, there are a lot of killings, and most of them are pretty messy. Death doesn't come quick and painless when knives and rifles are involved. True Grit is based on the novel by Charles Portis, and as before, its a comic Western that goofs around with the heroic Western archetype. When John Wayne played US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, he played against an archetype he'd embodied for much of his career. When Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, he shuffles and stumbles and slurs, and exhibits little of the dignity one might expect of a storied lawman. On the other hand, his "one-eyed fat man" surely looks like a fellow who spends days in the saddle and weeks sleeping in the dirt, with nought but a bottle of whisky for company. It's probably a lot closer to the reality of being a frontier lawman than the classic movie image of clean-shaven men in buckskin suits and boots with jangly spurs.
There is a fellow in buckskin and spurs in True Grit. That'd be Texas Ranger LaBeouf, a pretentious man with a big mustache and a high opinion of himself. That opinion is not shared by Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who compares the fashionable lawman to a rodeo clown. Mattie is a 14 year old girl from Arkansas, who has hired Rooster Cogburn to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the miserable, no 'count man who murdered her father. LaBeouf (who pronounces his name "La Beef," in the Texas way) is also tracking Chaney, and has in mind to collect a large bounty for him back in Texas. Mattie seeks justice and vengeance for her father, and she's heard that Cogburn is not particular about whether he brings outlaws back dead or alive, which suits her just fine. She wants Chaney dead, whether it's by the bullet or the noose, so long as it's in Arkansas.
Revenge is sweet, but Mattie is not. She's smart as a pistol, and all business, whether she's negotiating the sale of some ponies to a crooked horsetrader, or settling on Cogburn's fee. She's tough through and through, and she won't be trifled with, which makes she and Cogburn kindred spirits of sorts. Steinfeld is terrific in her feature film debut (I predict an Oscar nomination), playing Mattie as a humorless but nonethless hilarious, steely little fast talker who makes up for her small size with a very sharp tongue. Bridges and Damon are also quite good -- Damon's LaBeouf suffers numerous indignities, and turns out to be more complicated than he at first seems.
The script by the Coen Brothers is terrific -- wordy, witty, funny, profound, taking numerous digressive detours and meandering along on an unexpected trail to revenge and redemption. This is a Western uncharacteristically built on words -- these are characters who tallk and tell tales, who weigh and consider and negotiate, whether it's about the price of a horse, or the worth of a human life.
The Coens' previous Westerns (No Country for Old Men and, arguably, Raising Arizona), were set in modern times, but in True Grit, they work within the Western genre in a more traditional, though still revisionist way. In some ways, True Grit is a step backwards from No Country for Old Men, which, for my money, capped off the genre. True Grit shows that the Western well hasn't totally run dry -- there is still more to say on the subject of outlaws and lawmen, complicated good and unrepentant evil. The movie isn't particularly stylized or quirky, which is to say that it is not a typical Coen brothers movie, although I'm not sure there is a typical Coen brothers movie anymore. They have matured into very complete and complex filmmakers -- good storytellers, masters of the visual, with a sense of history and purpose, and also a sense of humor. There are no cheap laughs in True Grit, and the Coens don't make fun of the characters. There are odd flourishes here and there, and strange characters who turn up from time to time. But what makes True Grit unique and so interesting is that it's a serious and thoughtful film about serious people who mean to lay some Biblical, eye-for-en-eye wrath on a ne'er-do-well -- the movie can be violent and bloody -- but it's also extremely funny and entertaining. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but in True Grit, it is pulled off to perfection.