The Coen brothers' work has so frequently displayed many of the attributes that go into making a great western, it comes as something of a surprise that they haven't tackled the genre head-on until now. Think of the Coens' films and you think of their facility for stylised, verbose dialogue, their penchant for eccentric character details, and their superb location work, in which their protagonists often find themselves framed against stark landscapes. There's also the brothers' relationship with classic Hollywood genres to consider. They have tried their hand at noir, romantic comedy, screwball and Chandler-esque detective stories, but in most cases they have put their own distinctive spin on the material and subverted genre expectations.
With True Grit, however, the Coens have instead subverted audience expectations by putting away most of their usual idiosyncrasies and playing it straight. Charles Portis' novel has already been filmed once, with John Wayne winning his only Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 1969 version, but the Coens' adaptation is closer in spirit and structure to the source material. In the role of Rooster, the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, but their most crucial casting choice lies in the role of Mattie Ross. Played in the '69 film by Kim Darby, a good few years too old for the part, the character is here embodied by Hailee Steinfeld, a 14 year-old debutant who is the right age and possesses the right attitude and demeanour for the part. She might seem slight and vulnerable, but Mattie displays her maturity and intelligence early on, negotiating a horse trader into a corner in a superbly written and performed scene.
Mattie has come to Arkansas because this is where her father was killed, and she is determined to see Tom Chaney brought to justice, one way or another. She hires drunken, violent, half-blind marshal Rooster Cogburn to track him down, and Bridges makes him a much more irascible and spiky figure than Wayne's incarnation; we see him before we hear him, mumbling angrily from inside an outhouse as Mattie makes her opening offer. He's a hard character with a mean streak – even finding time to inexplicably kick two children off the porch as he walks into one house – and when a gunshot victim appeals to him for help, he flatly replies, "I can do nothing for you, son" before finishing the job. As the third part in the film's unusual central trio, Matt Damon's LaBoeuf, a vain and arrogant Texas Ranger, acts as a superb foil for Rooster, and Damon's performance is a marvellous display of sly understatement.
The Coens' films rarely contain poor performances, of course (although I'd argue Josh Brolin's turn here as Chaney comes close), and their craftsmanship is similarly so customarily flawless that praising it once more feels like stating the obvious. As ever, Roger Deakins' cinematography is beautifully composed, capturing the majestic sweep of the land the bickering trio are traipsing through, while saving his most extraordinary work for the film's moonlit sequences. Carter Burwell provides another superb score, both thrilling and haunting, and the Coens' staging of the film's action sequences – a nighttime ambush, the climactic "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" face-off – are staged and cut with breathtaking precision.
It is the final twenty minutes, however, that elevates this film from merely an exceptional example of its genre and turns it into something approaching greatness. The climactic cave sequence, horse ride and final epilogue deliver an unexpected emotional kick to the picture and bring True Grit to a most satisfying close. There will be those who complain about the lack of a distinctive Coen-ness in this picture, and will argue that the brothers have blunted their edges in order to make a mainstream hit, but that would be unfair. True Grit is the kind of effective, old-fashioned, richly enjoyable piece of storytelling that too few filmmakers know how to deliver anymore. It has been made with skill and sensitivity, and it possesses the kind of deceptive simplicity that only filmmakers at the very top of their game are blessed with. In years to come, I'm pretty sure we'll look back at this film and view it as a true classic.