True Grit

The Coens' remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic – hewing closer to Charles Portis' 1968 novel (which I haven't read) than the original – is a visually stunning Western, peppered with the brothers' trademark sadistic violence and gallows humor but otherwise remarkably mainstream and, shall we say, un-Coen-like.

You probably know the story by now: In 1870s Arkansas, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (appealing newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) enlists the aid of grizzled, one-eyed Federal Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, nicely reinventing both himself and the iconic role) to find the man who murdered her father and bring him to justice.

While the plotting of the film – and perhaps Portis' novel – is somewhat unusual, as the villain of the piece is ultimately a minor character, while a brand new antagonist dominates the third act and the ending is oddly protracted, you can't deny the spectacular visuals. The Coens and their team, chiefly cinematographer Roger Deakins, costumer Mary Zophres, and production designer Jess Gonchor, have captured the Old West with such attention to detail that you can practically smell the leather and dust. True Grit is a sensory film.

While Coen purists may bristle at the story's brushes with sentimentality (owing much to Carter Burwell's score, which incorporates the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", a tune familiar to anyone who's seen The Night of the Hunter), the brothers understand that there is a unique line to straddle when telling the story of a cute if headstrong 14-year-old girl experiencing the most unforgiving wilderness and appalling human behavior that the West had to offer. In balancing the begrudging tenderness between Mattie and Rooster with splashes of horrific violence, True Grit is almost like a Takeshi Kitano movie. It's not completely satisfying in the long run, but it's an enthralling cinematic experience, absolutely made for the big screen.