It should come as no surprise that the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have made a terrific western in True Grit. After all, they won the Oscar for a western, a modern one to be sure, with No Country for Old Men.
Now, with True Grit, they've done the whole boots-and-saddles thing, adapting a novel that previously had been known as the movie that won John Wayne his Oscar. That was 1969, when the words "revisionist western" had barely been coined by a critic somewhere.
The original film, directed by Henry Hathaway, was nobody's idea of revisionism. It was good guys and bad buys, with joking references to central character Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn's tendency to shoot first and ask questions later. But there was no doubt that Wayne's Rooster was a traditional hero, despite his tendency to drink a little too much. Ain't you never heard of comic relief?
The Coens, however, play it straighter. While both films are relatively faithful to Charles Portis' novel, the Coens more closely capture the sense of rough justice, the sense that no good deed goes unpunished in the Old West - and that even heroes have feet of clay.
Hathaway's film was a western of its era, a time when Hollywood still considered the western a viable commercial form, something that hasn't been true for a long time (which is why journalists inevitably make such a big deal about it when someone actually makes one these days). Those westerns had horses and wagons and six-shooters and the like - but they always felt like they were shot on a backlot. They featured long-established towns that had been around for a while, instead of the kind of recently thrown-together settlements that were tents before someone got the money or equipment to make buildings out of wood.
But the Coens' Fort Smith, Ark., where this story starts, has that sense of newness (which David Milch also captured in his Deadwood series) and impermanence. That's the town young Mattie Ross steps into, after the murder of her father.
Played with a starchy impertinence (that occasionally breaks to reveal the little girl beneath the surface of this 14-year-old) by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, Mattie arrives in Fort Smith to arrange for the shipment home of her father's body, settle his business affairs and seek justice ("Retribution," as the film's posters proclaim) for his murder.
She settles on U.S. Marshal Reuben Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) as her agent of justice, because he has a reputation for being tough and relentless. Still, it takes some cold, hard cash to convince him to take on the mission into the Choctaw Indian territory (later Oklahoma) to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father.
She finds she has competition for Chaney's capture: a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) which he pronounces la-Beef. He's seeking Chaney under a different name for a murder in Texas. Eventually, LaBoeuf and Cogburn decide to partner up and go after Chaney alone - until the tenacious Mattie inserts herself into the hunting party.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine