Rapturously received in the US by critics and public alike, the Coens’ film sticks closely to its source – no, not the 1969 film that won Wayne his only Oscar, but the novel by Charles Portis, published a year earlier.
Set in the 1880s, Portis’s yarn tells how a dauntingly precocious 14-year-old Arkansas girl named Mattie Ross (an equally precocious performance from Hailee Steinfeld) hires the grizzled Rooster to bring to justice the man who murdered her father.
The fugitive, Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney, has scarpered into Indian Territory, taking refuge with the notorious Pepper gang, but Mattie insists on accompanying the marshal to see the job gets done. She can’t, however, prevent Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is hunting Chaney for another crime, from joining the quest.
The Western genre has been consigned to Boot Hill again and again during the last few decades. And just when you’re convinced the corpse has stopped twitching, a film comes along to prove the Western’s continuing vitality – Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), of course, and more recently such films as Kevin Costner’s Open Range (2003) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).
Beautifully photographed, scripted and acted, True Grit is truly worthy to ride the trail with these films. That’s because, for a change, the Coens are shooting straight (and not from the hip). They’re not sending up the Western genre and they’ve left their customary cynicism in the saddlebag, though they do find room for the odd bit of mordant irony and dark humour, and several moments of down-the-line weirdness.
The leading trio play things straight too, even if each one of them does have comic elements in his or her makeup. Damon displays the Ranger’s preening self-importance but leaves you aware of the mettle underneath; Bridges, on a roll since his Oscar last year, oozes ornery integrity as the paunchy, boozy Rooster; and Steinfeld, only 13 at the time of shooting, is as audaciously confident as her character. As to which of them displays the truest grit, it’s too close to call.
On general release from 10th February.