By rough reckoning, four kinds of folks will see True Grit, a perfectly handsome if stubbornly detached new Western from Joel and Ethan Coen. First, there are those who have read the rollicking 1968 novel by Charles Portis, a beaut narrated in the unforgettable voice of Mattie Ross. Mattie tells the story of how, as a 14-year-old girl on the 19th-century frontier, she set out to avenge her daddy’s death at the hands of the coward and drifter Tom Chaney. She has considerable help from an outsize U.S. Marshal named Reuben J. ”Rooster” Cogburn and Rooster’s would-be competitor, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf.
Second, there are those who are nostalgically fond of the defanged and more Cogburn-centric 1969 movie version, for which a hammy post-cancer John Wayne won his only Oscar as the fat, one-eyed, drunken Rooster. Third, there are those who have read the book and seen the 1969 movie and despaired at how the latter gummed up the startling and often funny tone of the former, with a sweetened ending that was great for Wayne but hell for Portis.
And fourth, there are True Grit newbies eager to see a full Western by the brothers who made the unsweetened semi-Western No Country for Old Men. This same audience may be similarly excited about seeing Jeff Bridges — the Coens’ ”Dude” Lebowski himself — as Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, No Country’s Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney, and buzzed-about newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.
So before I assume the eyes of a newbie for the purposes of this analysis — that’s the dominant audience for whom this movie must, after all, make its case — here’s a word to others: No, this version still doesn’t duplicate Portis’ crazy-cool literary swagger. The Coens lay their more deadpan filmmaking voice over the proceedings, but at least as screenwriters they’re truer to the original story, and to Mattie’s place at the center of it all. Her grit is the headline. And yes, it’s better than the original.
The best of the new True Grit (in theaters Dec. 22) comes from the actors who bring their vivid characters to life. It’s crucial for the man who plays the amoral, gun-waving Cogburn to wallow without embarrassment in ornery seediness, even in front of a fatherless girl. With an Oscar under his armpit for drunken dissolution in Crazy Heart, Bridges is that man. Likewise, the girl who plays Mattie had better have the sand to face down the Roosters of the world and grow into the steely older woman who narrates the story. With her resolute dark eyes and plainspoken poise, Steinfeld holds the screen with believable adolescent fierceness. As for LaBoeuf, well, this isn’t the first time recently that I’ve delighted at how Damon has become one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable, versatile actors. I’m happy every time I see him, and he’s a great costar here, flavoring his LaBoeuf — pronounced La Beef, if you please — with a piquant seasoning of Ranger vanity, bounty-hunting avarice, and Dudley Do-Right earnestness.
What keeps us at arm’s length, however, is the almost reflexive Coen instinct to favor controlled surface style over emotional mess and to dote on weird slapshots of violence that don’t leave room to feel real horror. And while No Country for Old Men and especially their stunning personal drama A Serious Man nudged these always erudite, often insular filmmakers out of their comfort zone into fresh air, this more climate-controlled Western retreats to safer ground, despite the high body count. (The overload of home-on-the-range music from Carter Burwell doesn’t help.)
The slippery result: Much is fine in True Grit, including typically impeccable dusty-Western cinematography by Roger Deakins. Much is admirable, or diverting, especially when Bridges’ and Damon’s characters jostle for dominance and Mattie exerts her will. Too little, though, is wild like Portis can be wild, despite the shoot-outs, the horse gallops, and Rooster’s inebriated sprees. Truer than the John Wayne showpiece and less gritty than the book, this True Grit is just tasty enough to leave movie lovers hungry for a missing spice. B+