I confess I was skeptical about the Coen Brothers' re-make of "True Grit." Based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel, the 1969 film adaptation starred John Wayne as crusty old marshal Rooster Cogburn, and made a decidedly comedic and reassuring swerve away from Portis' darker story-line. The Hollywood producer Hal Wallis, as it turns out, bought the screen rights to Portis' novel from Simon & Schuster even before the novel's publication, and apparently helped the novel's success along by sending employees to buy up cartons of the book at bookstores known to be part of "The New York Times"' best-seller list calculations. In retrospect, the 1969 film that he and Paramount released, directed by Henry Hathaway, is a little like the Wild West show that a grown-up Mattie Ross visits in 1903 at the end of the Coens' re-make - a side-show version of wilder events served up for popular entertainment without real menace.
Now, setting the record straight, we have Mattie's memory-inside-a-memory - that is, from the windswept, lonely hillside of her family's private burial plot in the early years of the 20th century, the 40-year-old "cranky old maid" recalls her 1903 trip to that Wild West show to see Rooster and, as she alights from the train on her way there, she remembers the trip they made together deep into the "Indian territory" beyond Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1873 in pursuit of Tom Chaney, her father's murderer, when she was just 14. As it turns out, older Mattie is three days' too late - Rooster as just died - a span of time the Coens wisely do not make much of but leave to percolate along with their other Biblical references.
As Cogburn the Coens have cast Jeff Bridges, with Matt Damon as the preening bounty hunter/ex-Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, new-comer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, Barry Pepper as the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper and Josh Brolin as Tom Chaney. There is not a mediocre performance among them, and the bloom is off the rose so far as any romantic notion of frontier life goes. A world of exposition is supplied by attending to the right placement of filthy fingernails, from Dreyer's long-ago suggestion of how bleak was Joan of Arc's confinement right down to Mattie's first encounter with Lucky Ned, into hands and care she falls. That young Mattie, inside the first ten minutes, attends a triple hanging and briskly agrees to share a night's lodging with the remains - her father's undertaker has depleted her funds by overcharging her and this is the best hospitality he offers - does prepare us for what she'll have to take in stride later.