"True Grit" is one of the most mainstream, crowd-pleasing films Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made.
It's sort of a screwball Western, if you will, with vivid performances and strikingly vast, picturesque vistas, the always gorgeous work of the always great Roger Deakins, the Coens' frequent cinematographer.
But it's a minor entry from the writing-directing brothers, especially when you consider the inventiveness and strength of their canon and the close aesthetic resemblance to "No Country for Old Men," their masterpiece. While "True Grit" is entertaining, it's also surprisingly lacking in emotional resonance, as well as the intriguing sense of ambiguity that so often permeates Coen pictures. Only toward the end does it feel like anything is at stake, but at least it's enjoyable while you're waiting.
Based on the title, this would seem like a remake of the 1969 Western that earned John Wayne his only Academy Award, for best actor. But the Coens were actually more interested in creating a truer version of the original source material, Charles Portis' novel of the same name.
The absurd humor that is one of the Coens' trademarks exists here alongside the kinds of quick bursts of violence that often erupt in their films. And the dialogue is so Coens-y: the specificity of the word choices; the cadence of the exchanges; the repetition of certain phrases.
And while Jeff Bridges is stepping into a role so closely associated with The Duke, he infuses it with unmistakable shadings of The Dude. By now we're probably all looking for traces of Bridges' character from "The Big Lebowski," the last film he made with the Coens, in everything he does. It's become such an indelible part of his persona. But The Dude is really here this time. Bridges plays U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn as a guy who is gruff and grizzled, lived a long and well-lubricated life, but who has also attained a certain Zen-like self-possession about it. There's a pleasingly shambling way about him, an easygoing ramble to his storytelling. He even says the word "abide" at one point. If you're a fan - or even an "achiever" - it will make you smile.
That's just part of what makes this version of "True Grit" so amusing, though. There's also Bridges' competitive interplay with Matt Damon, a bit of a buffoon as a preening Texas Ranger, which Damon plays with some of the same goofy humor he showed last year in "The Informant!" It's yet another reminder that he can do anything.
But the real revelation is Hailee Steinfeld, making her astonishingly self-assured film debut as Mattie Ross, the 19th-century pioneer girl who sets the story's action in motion. She was only 13 when she shot the movie, and to say she holds her own with Bridges, Damon, Josh Brolin and the rest of the cast would be an understatement. She dominates "True Grit" - carries the film, practically - handling the difficult language as well as the physical challenges with equal aplomb.
The determined, puritanical Mattie intends to find her father's killer, a wanderer named Tom Chaney (Brolin, the "No Country" star who doesn't appear here nearly enough). She uses her formidable wit and unshakable sense of right and wrong to persuade pretty much whomever she wants to do whatever she wants, as evidenced by an early scene in which she goes toe-to-toe with a veteran horse trader (Dakin Matthews, who's perfect in just a couple of scenes).
Mattie enlists the help of Cogburn, the reluctant, one-eyed marshal, through the sheer force of her will; once she learns of his reputation and tracks him down, she meets him for the first time in an outhouse, stripping him of all his mystique. Also along for the ride is Damon as the ranger LaBoeuf - pronounced le-BEEF - who's been tasked with finding Chaney himself and bringing him back to Texas for crimes he committed there. Eventually, the three forge an uneasy alliance and hit the trail in search of revenge.
Although Cogburn is supposedly the individual among the trio who possesses the titular grit, it's actually Mattie - and the young actress playing her - who are the real ones who have it. It's an exciting discovery to make.
"True Grit," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of western violence including disturbing images. Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.