Some people come of age. Others have adulthood thrust upon them. Within hours of arriving at Ft. Smith, Arkansas to retrieve her murdered father, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played crisply and unsmilingly by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) has paid the undertaker and seen three men hanged. Her troubles have barely begun. True, she could simply turn around and go back home. But she’s determined to see her father’s killer (Josh Brolin) brought to justice, which means enlisting the help of the meanest Federal Marshal money can buy, a one-eyed frontier veteran named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who’s happy to pull a cork or a trigger, happier still to say as few words as possible while doing so, and prone to few gentle sentiments when he does talk. He’s the perfect guide, in other words, for the hard country into which her nemesis has disappeared.
In this second adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel—the first earned John Wayne his only Oscar—Joel and Ethan Coen offer sweeping, mythic images of the Old West, then populate them with characters who behave heroically either by accident, or in spite of tremendous flaws. Having become a lawman only after stints as a bushwhacker, outlaw, and restaurateur, Cogburn never appears settled into his career on the right side of the law, and Bridges plays him as a man in the midst of a perpetual grump when circumstances don’t force him to rise to the occasion. He stands in sharp contrast to Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, a vain Texas Ranger also on the killer’s tail.
The Coens direct True Grit with a light touch, but like Portis’ stark, funny novel, their adventure tale shaves off none of the rough edges. It’s simultaneously rollicking and grave, alternating moments of fine dark humor with startling violence as it drags Mattie into the world of adult responsibilities and the danger and lost innocence that come with them. She tries to buy revenge using the terms of trade her father taught her, then discovers she’s made a purchase that won’t fit easily fit onto a sum-filled balance sheet. The West here is a place of blood, black humor, and unsparing consequences, a land to test the character of even the toughest men, to say nothing of a willful girl with revenge in her heart and braids still in her hair.