Of what does true grit consist? Grit, presumably. But also something else, something that makes it easy to distinguish from false grit. “True Grit” the film consists of a 14-year-old girl in 1880ish Arkansas who hires an old, fat, drunk, half-blind marshal to help her track down her father’s killer. This has been a film before, and before that a novel, and before that a serialized story in the Saturday Evening Post, and before that, maybe, some resilient meme of early American folklore. So the question isn’t only academic.
Here’s the answer: As far as the girl is concerned, true grit is the essential qualification for the marshal’s job. He has it, but as their time together will reveal, so does she. (A Texas Ranger also joins their quest, and he has some grit too, but his seems falser.) So the challenge for “True Grit” the film will be to both honor and renew its own familiarity. This won’t be a problem for filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who’ve written and directed it together, and enlisted newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the girl, Jeff Bridges as the marshal, Josh Brolin, briefly, as the killer and Matt Damon as the ranger. Also, Roger Deakins’ handsome cinematography supplies the essential atmospherics of wintry moods and landscapes.
Today any movie western will seem like a nostalgic genre exercise, especially an ostensible remake of one that already reeked of anachronism when it was Oscar bait for John Wayne in the late 1960s. But the Coens have gotten away with nostalgic genre exercises before, usually by checking sentimentalism with a coolly ironic sort of anthropology, as they do here. It’s less an embrace of the genre than a drolly formal shake of its hand. And, as some proprietary hair-splitters will insist, it’s not exactly a remake, either: The basic essence of this film — Old Testament moralism, as filtered through wry, retrospective soul-searching — derives not from the earlier movie but instead from “True Grit”’s first recorded source, the fiction of Charles Portis.
“Like Cormac McCarthy, but funny,” Ed Park wrote in The Believer several years ago, neatly summarizing our received idea of the sly Portis style. So was it inevitable, and just a matter of time, that “True Grit” should be taken up by the adapters of McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men,” who also happened to make “The Big Lebowski”? It seems safe to assume that the Coens were attracted to Portis’ mordant humor and consciously weird locutions, and that their actors were too. Certainly this isn’t just Jeff Bridges imitating John Wayne. For one thing, he wears the patch on the opposite eye. For another, it sounds more like he’s imitating Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.” Whereas the talkative, tightly braided Steinfeld, avoiding contractions and reciting colloquialisms always as if they’re in quotation marks, sounds more like the android Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” “Sleep well, Little Blackie,” she tells her horse, robotically. “I have a notion that tomorrow we will reach our object. We are ‘hot on the trail.’” That’s probably straight from the book. It’s also the basis for a confounding, Coen-typical performance, just irksome enough to become somehow charming in spite of itself. And of course Damon has a healthy share of too-earnest talk as well, feeding his occasional need to insist that he’s capable of playing an oaf. In those moments when the point is that not just the girl but also the ranger is trying too hard, so is the movie.
Then again, given a prevailing tendency toward detachment, a little strenuousness here and there helps restore some humanity. After her adventure with the marshal and the ranger and the killer, the girl will grow up to become a spinster, and to narrate her wistful comprehension that “time just gets away from us.” Yes, the other movie lacked that perspective. But the familiar tone of this one — the Coenism, as it were — nearly moots it.
That “True Grit” likely will wind up on many best-of-the-year lists suggests a certain lack of imagination, as much from the makers of movies as from the makers of lists. Even still, it is great fun — a crafty deadpan caricature of archetypal rough justice, and accordingly true enough.