BY NANCY R. MANDELL
Santa rode into town a few days early this year, his saddlebags packed with a real treat for movie lovers. "True Grit," the latest film from the always surprising brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, may bear the same title as the 1969 classic starring John Wayne, but what it really shares is the source of that film, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis that was serialized to tremendous popularity in the Saturday Evening Post.
The character, the plot and even much of the dialogue are the same, but as recreated by the Coens, you ain't seen nothin' yet! Of course, the Western genre has come a long way in the last 40 years, what with the scruffy characters and rough dialogue that replaced some of the delicacy and even romanticism audiences used to expect. But those were never elements of Portis' novel. His dry wit and novel plot elevated "True Grit" to a different plane of Americana, the coming-of-age adventure of a 14-year-old frontier girl whose intellect and determination to avenge her father's murder are well ahead of her chronology. Played to perfection by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld — 13 when she was chosen for the role from among 15,000 hopefuls — young Mattie Ross is a character you won't soon forget...and she has a lot of talented competition in this consistently entertaining movie.
In the company of a family retainer — whom she soon sends on his way — Mattie has arrived in Fort Smith, Ark., to claim the body of her cotton merchant father, gunned down in cold blood by "the coward Tom Cheney" (Josh Brolin). The year is 1878, and the setting is the westernmost frontier of what was then the U.S., captured in wintry desolation by Roger Deakins. Encouraged over and over to return to her family in more civilized Yell County, the spunky and deadly serious Mattie determines instead to hire Rooster Cogburn, the meanest and most ruthless U.S. Marshall in town, to help her hunt Cheney down. Now Jeff Bridges may have won the Oscar for his performance in last year's "Crazy Heart," but film fans, Rooster Cogburn is the role he was born to play! A one-eyed, pot-bellied drunk with dead pan delivery that complements Mattie's to a tee, he is the perfect answer to her vengeful fantasy, or so she hopes. We meet Rooster during his courtroom testimony about his own latest adventure, a scene you've probably witnessed in the TV previews for the film. You know, the one where he's asked how many men he's shot, and he replies, after a ruminative pause, "Shot or kilt?"
Mattie's first encounter with Rooster is even less auspicious, taking place outside the outhouse where he appears to be parked for the duration. And he retains his reluctance to make a deal with this teenage dominatrix until her superior bargaining skills wear him down. Once they hit the trail across the state line into Indian Territory where Cheney — like most of the era's fugitives — has fled, they pick up another Cheney bounty-hunter, the Texas Ranger LaBoef (forget your French; it's LaBeef here) — Matt Damon, just terrific as a preening dandy and garrulous windbag who's hunting the same culprit under a different name for a Texas murder. Since the characters of Rooster and LaBoef are oil and water, and Mattie's no peacemaker, they continue on in their quest variously together and apart, to the delight of the often hilarious dialogue adapted by the Coens from the Portis novel.
Lest I make "True Grit" sound less truly gritty than it is, perhaps it's time to point out that this movie is also rife with violence, the kind that at one point causes Rooster to warn Mattie to turn her head away. I can only give you the same advice, particularly during a brutal scene in a wilderness cabin where Rooster and Mattie encounter some low-life associates of Cheney and the climactic near-ending when Mattie — having gotten her man — has the misfortune to fall into a pit of snakes.
We see the unfortunate consequences of this episode when she reappears in the film's coda as the 25-year-older spinster who has been relating the story. Carter Burwell's score seems to capture the poignancy of this outcome.
But violence in the face of humor is no stranger to the Coens, and if you suspect the prospect of seeing "True Grit" takes more grit than you can muster, my advice is to bite the bullet. I don't think you'll regret it!
"True Grit" opened everywhere on Dec. 22.