True Grit is a film in which boot-heels bump reassuringly on wooden porches and where horses kick up sprays of water as they canter through the creek-bed. The old-school American western was not dead, it seems. It was just playing possum, waiting for the Coens to come along and rouse it.
True Grit beats a path back to the original Charles Portis novel to spin the tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a pig-tailed angel of vengeance, hellbent on finding the man who robbed and killed her father. Given the choice of three US marshals to hire, Mattie promptly opts for "the meanest": a cantankerous cyclops called Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Bridges). Also joining her on this mission is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas ranger far from home. Rooster and LaBoeuf plan to ditch the girl and split the reward between them. But Mattie will not be deterred and pursues them across the river and into the trees. Up ahead lies Chocktaw country, where the snow whirls and the rule of law no longer applies. This is a land prowled not by dragons, but bears, brigands and rattlesnakes.
The fact that True Grit marks the brothers' first collaboration with Bridges since 1998's The Big Lebowski has inevitably led some viewers to expect something in a similar vein: freewheeling and irreverent, a gleeful dismantling of wild west cliche. And yet what's most confounding about the Coens' 15th feature is how respectful – how inherently conservative – it is. This has no interest in poking fun at the genre, nor even of shaking it up a little. Instead, it sticks safely to the path and doffs its hat to the cowboy archetypes. True Grit is lean, spare and unadorned; modest almost to a fault. Like one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, it stares at a world without depth or dimension, where the well-worn landmarks stand out plain and true.
Bridges, despite stirring faint memories of drawling Dude Lebowski, plays the sort of boozy old lawman we've seen a hundred times before. Riding shotgun, Steinfeld gives it her all as the feisty – but faintly one-note – heroine, while Josh Brolin crops up late as a black-hat villain to hiss at. Surrounding them, meantime, is a familiar arrangement of stakeouts and shootouts, sagebrush and sentiment.
It's robustly played and ravishing to look at, with its bullish inhabitants and glorious, bleached-bone cinematography. But its furniture is almost too comfortable and too lovingly restored, and it is left to Damon to provide the tale's one properly unruly ingredient as the florid, preening ranger. LaBoeuf's introduction, lighting his pipe in the gloom of the hotel veranda, gives True Grit a sensual, otherworldly charge that is largely missing elsewhere. It's like spying a lonely campfire burning far out on the darkened prairie.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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