Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) repeatedly announces that she is "only 14 years old," and unlike the original True Grit, which starred a 20-year-old Kim Darby as Mattie, when Steinfeld says it, it rings true. Only 13 when she shot the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, Steinfeld's role is much more important than it was in the 1969 original, and it's just one of the reasons why the Coens' remake (or rather, re-adaptation) works so well.
Like the original, True Grit tells the story of a Mattie Ross' attempt to track down her father's murderer by hiring a hard-nosed US Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Now, as to just how close the Coens stuck to Charles Portiss' novel for their screenplay, I can't vouch, as I've never read the source material. That said, in going back to the text instead of the John Wayne film, they've found a way to make a film that is much more inline with their sensibilities, and even their sense of humor. This is a good thing, because if there's one thing that surprised me in True Grit, it's the amount of humor that runs almost consistently throughout the film.
And even though the humor (and the story) may not entirely have the typical Coen brothers sense of irony, it still feels as though something they would come up with if they felt like playing it a little on the safe side. Assisting them through these (relatively) tame waters is their impeccable cast. Though she's been placed in (and won) supporting actress in the critics awards thus far, Steinfeld truly deserves to be labeled as lead. Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) may be the iconic character from Portiss' story, but at heart the story belongs to Mattie and her quest for justice and vengeance. Steinfeld beautifully captures the sense that Mattie is both a girl mature beyond her years, and yet still, well, 14 years old. As for Bridges, the role remains something of an emblem rather than a fully-formed character. What background details we're given don't really sink in, as their used more to portray Cogburn as a man with a penchant for rambling. That said, Bridges, whose last collaboration with the Coens gave us the ultimate laid-back "Dude," is able to pull off the role, one which has such large boots to fill. But the real joy of the film (aside from the surprise of Steinfeld) is Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBeouf, who has been searching for Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for a separate crime. Damon, recently returning to comedy on NBC's 30Rock, gets to show off his comedic talents even more here, and he plays the slightly huffy, self-important Ranger with just the right touches, without making the character truly obnoxious or unbearable. A good part of the fun also comes from the fantastic (if at times overly wordy) dialogue, which is a mix of wild west gruffness mixed with a strange pseudo-Shakespearean tone (don't expect many contractions).
But good performances are nothing new for the Coen brothers. What's really, really surprising is the film's overall emotional impact. In a career long-dominated by black humor, irony, and in some cases flat out nihilism, True Grit ends up being surprisingly touching. I can't remember the last time that term applied to anything the Coens have done (if ever). Even with the comedic aspects of the film penetrating further into the story that one would expect, by the time it reaches its climax and begins to wind down, the result is actually moving (though completely free of schmaltz). While the story basics and characters may have been traversed before, for the Coens, True Grit is bold new territory well-explored.