This beautifully crafted Western from the Coen Brothers is a much richer adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the 1969 film version.
It begins in Arkansas during the 1870s with a young girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hiring grizzled US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer (Josh Brolin).
A Texas Ranger named Le Beouf (Matt Damon), who is also after Chaney, joins them as they head out into Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) and, despite their differences in age and temperament, gradually form a close bond.
Although regarded by some as a remake of the film that finally won John Wayne his first Oscar, this is actually more faithful to the original novel, preserving the point of view of Mattie and its distinctive depiction of the Wild West.
Both the town of Fort Smith and the rugged surrounding landscape are recreated with consummate skill: regular cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots the terrain with a harsh beauty and Jess Gonchor’s production design helps create a detailed, but never romanticised, world.
The wintry setting makes for palette which emphasizes blacks, browns and greys, which is in stark contrast to the garish Technicolor of the Henry Hathaway film.
Aspects of the setting such as the rough way of life and the violence also mark this out from the previous version.
Not only does this help make the current film distinctive but also provides a convincing backdrop for the actors to shine, although it might surprise some audiences how much of a presence Steinfeld has in the film.
In what is effectively the lead role, she anchors the narrative and acts as a surrogate for the audience, as we see much of the action through her perspective.
A precocious performance, it is amongst the best any child actor has given in recent years and bodes well for her future career.
As Cogburn, Bridges banishes any lingering memories of Wayne in the role, mixing the grizzled, boozy charm of his country singer in Crazy Heart with the believable tough streak of a hardened lawman.
Damon has the slightly lighter role of Le Beouf (pronounced ‘Le Beef’), but his comic timing is impeccable and provides an excellent foil for Bridges and Steinfeld.
All three main actors cope well with the affected dialogue, which the Coens have gleefully taken straight from the novel, and this is mirrored by quirky ‘Coenesque’ behaviour, which involves characters shooting at cornbread and arguing about Confederate guerrillas.
With less screen time, actors such as Brolin and Barry Pepper (as ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper) make a strong impression and there are the usual array of distinctive, odd-looking minor characters that often crop up in the work of the Coens.
Carter Burwell’s plaintive score is moving without ever being sentimental and provides a highly satisfying mix of hymns, strings and piano to augment the action.
Despite featuring the ironic tone so beloved of the Coen Brothers, there is a pleasing sincerity to Mattie’s quest, as her scripture-fuelled journey captures her determination and spirit, which rubs off on the men around her.
This is something that is movingly depicted as the film reaches its latter stages.
Certain memorable sequences, such as a group hanging or the climax, skilfully weave humour in with genuine tension, showing the light and shade of the West as originally imagined by Charles Portis.
Since the book and previous film came out in the cultural tumult of the late 1960s, the image of John Wayne cast a long shadow over the source material, obscuring the way in which Portis slyly undercut the very traditions of the Western that ‘Duke’ embodied.
The Coens have translated this humour and pathos for a time of similar cultural transition, making a Western that both celebrates and wryly debunks the genre.
A reminder of their prodigious filmmaking talent, it is also an evocation of a distant time and place that feels strangely radical in the current era of Hollywood.
True Grit is out in the US and opens in the UK on Friday 11th February
> Official site
> Reviews of True Grit at Metacritic
> More on the Charles Portis novel at Wikipedia
> The Coen Brothers at the IMDb
> NY Times profile of Charles Portis