The Coen brothers' True Grit is well-wrought, if overly talkative, and seriously ambitious. Opening with a strategically abbreviated Old Testament proverb ("The wicked flee when none pursueth"), the film returns the Coens to the all-American sagebrush and gun-smoke landscape that has best nourished their wise-guy sensibility.
This perverse buddy tale, in which an implacable 14-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) bonds in vengeance with the one-eyed, one-note, bounty-hunting windbag marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role), is one of the brothers' least facetious movies — despite a prolonged meet-cute as little Mattie stubbornly attempts to roust Rooster from a rustic privy to secure his aid in tracking her father's murderer into Indian territory.
For the most part, True Grit is a highly enjoyable yarn, stocked with pungent bushwa and a full panoply of frontier bozos. However hammily he rasps and fumfers, Rooster is nuanced and less overbearing than if Wayne were in the role. Never less than disciplined, Matt Damon is a strong foil to Bridge's rumbling, stumbling, grumbling, grizzled scapegrace, as a mildly pompous Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf.
Once constituted, the posse makes for a mouthy, self-aggrandizing trio, although it's relentless little Mattie who serves as the movie's key gimmick; even feistier than the much-lauded heroine of Winter's Bone, she's self-possessed, schoolmarmish, full of sass, and downright uncanny. "I am puzzled — what is she doing here?" LaBoeuf more than once wonders in the oddly formal, faux-Mark Twain diction that characterizes the dialogue.
The Coens manage to render Choctaw country uncanny as well — the spectacle of a corpse dangling from a tree and a bear seemingly bestride a horse are portents worthy of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The brothers have always been good on scary outlaws (in this case, Josh Brolin) and, with its sod houses and bleak weather, their West is as inhospitable as it should be.
For years now, just about every credible Western — Unforgiven, Dead Man, Wild Bill, The Assassination of Jesse James — has been an oddity, if not a walking corpse. True Grit belongs with these ghost stories and, in suggesting that we're all haunted by things we can't understand, it carries its own Coen-trademarked mystery. Whereas the full Biblical proverb that introduces True Grit ends with praise for the bravery of the righteous, the Coens cut directly to the chase, suggesting only the power of a guilty conscience.