You don’t get too many Westerns coming out these days, but if anyone can pull it off it’s the Coen brothers. True Grit plays to their strengths – it’s meticulously crafted and beautifully shot, with large chunks of pleasurably ornate dialogue delivered by a host of colourful and/or grotesque characters. It’s a simple story of a teenage girl who hires the most ruthless man she can find in an Arkansas frontier town to go after her father’s killer, but the appeal of the film is not so much in the plot as in its rendering. Jeff Bridges has the standout role as the hard-drinking marshall Rooster Cogburn, a role for which the word “ornery” may well have been devised, and he’s an utter delight, sleeping in a butcher’s storeroom, mumbling in his beard, falling off his horse but still being able to hit moving targets long-range and always displaying a shrewd survival instinct. It’s the 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld, however, who really impresses: she’s onscreen more or less all the time and is amazingly assured without a hint of irritating precocity. Matt Damon’s also along for the ride as a straightlaced Texas ranger who’s also looking for the wanted man.
The film wastes no time in setting up the story, and the early scenes of the girl recruiting Cogburn and raising the money to pay him are brisk and efficient. Once the manhunt begins the pace does seem to slacken, with a lot of scenes of two or three of the characters riding through forests at a leisurely amble, but the stunning scenery, highly entertaining performances and occasional bursts of sometimes quite shocking action stop the film from getting boring. The eventual denouement arrives suddenly and is over very quickly and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just a symptom of the trend for most modern action films to have shamelessly over-extended climactic sequences that this felt a bit perfunctory. The Coen Brothers should now be forced to remake every classic Western ever, it’s clearly what they were put here to do.