“There is no law west of St. Louis,” a popular saying had it over a century ago, “and no God west of Fort Smith.” It is a verdict one would be not at all surprised to find confirmed in a Coen brothers film set in the time and place in question—even if by then a semblance of law had come to Fort Smith in the person of reputed “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. In fact, one could easily imagine the Coens being drawn to such a setting precisely for those qualities of lawlessness and godlessness.
In 14-year-old Mattie Ross, though, the Coens have a protagonist whose adamantine sense of purpose defies both halves of that 19th-century aphorism. Arriving in Fort Smith to identify the body of her slain father, Mattie is single-minded in her determination to see justice done for her father’s murder. She has a good lawyer whose name she deploys to considerable effect, she knows the difference between malum prohibitum and malum in se, and she is confident that Providence is with her.
“My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was,” she resolves, quoting the 23rd psalm (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”). “The Author of all things watches over me,” she concludes, “and I have a good horse.” About the horse, she is unquestionably right. As for the Author of all things, squint though I may, I cannot see that even the Coens necessarily dissent.
Irony and nihilism may be warp and woof for much of their work, but in True Grit the Coens seem to have found source material—the 1968 Charles Portis novel, not the 1969 John Wayne adaptation—whose own quirks and oddments play best when handled more or less straight. Not that True Grit is lacking in the deadpan humor, dark ironies and lexical stylings characteristic of the brothers’ work. But in Portis the Coens have apparently found a collaborator whose quirky voice blends so well with their own that they have allowed him to bring an unwonted level of sincerity and humanity to their chilly sensibility.
Smart, shrewd, fundamentally upright, and preternaturally self-assured, Mattie is the Coens’ most admirable protagonist since Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, in tight pigtails and broadbrimmed hat, negotiates her character’s varying toughness, naivete, enthusiasm and verbal virtuosity with uncanny aplomb. She’s not all rapid-fire banter: You can see hope sparkling in her young eyes as she tries to reel in Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the dissolute, capricious Deputy U.S. Marshall whom she hopes has the true grit to aid her cause—and suppressed unease as she puts down La Boeuf, the vain, bumptious Texas Ranger whom she finds in her room on waking one morning.
Even Rooster and La Boeuf are, for all their defects, remarkably capable, humanely drawn characters. The Duke’s fans may stoutly insist that there’s only one Rooster Cogburn—but Portis fans can credibly retort that, in that case, Wayne wasn’t him. Wayne won his only Oscar for the role he called his first good part in 20 years, but as rough around the edges as Wayne’s Rooster was, he was still a larger-than-life archetype and the hero of his film. It may be an open question whether any actor alive, even Jeff Bridges, could fill the Duke’s boots, but to their credit the Coens aren’t interested in finding out. Bridges’ Rooster is closer to the book’s: He’s meaner, less principled, and settles for playing second fiddle to Mattie, whose true grit never wavers even when Rooster’s does.
Not that Bridges isn’t great fun to watch, gurgling his slurred dialogue in the back of his throat, sounding like Bad Blake might sound if he drank twice as much and hadn’t cleared his throat in a decade or so. Matt Damon’s La Beouf is both less ridiculous and more transparently image-conscious than the Glen Campbell character from the 1969 film; it’s a terrific balancing act, all the more wonderful for resisting the Coens’ tendency to skewer their characters’ absurdities.