Watching "True Grit," the new Coen brothers film, isn't as much fun as reading the book by Charles Portis, but it's a solid film. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld has some good moments and may remind viewers of a young Judy Garland.

Share story

“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

That’s the irresistible opening of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel “True Grit,” adapted with care and faithfulness (much of the screen dialogue is directly from Portis) by Joel and Ethan Coen. And if watching the film isn’t quite as much fun as reading the book — well, that’s the risk of bringing a great book to the screen.

Two unforgettable characters stand at the center of this Western, set in an 1870s Arkansas of hand-built towns and dry horizons. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role made famous by John Wayne in the 1969 version) is a U.S. marshal who’s seen better days. He’s got an eye patch, a voice that sounds as if it’s being squeezed through a narrow opening, a drinking habit and an unerringly casual approach to his work. (After firing a volley of bullets into a crew of marauders, he notes laconically, “Well, that didn’t pan out.”) Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), the book’s narrator, hires him to help find her father’s murderer, even though his first reaction to her is, “You’re no bigger than a corn nugget.”

Steinfeld, whose earnest sincerity may remind viewers of a young Judy Garland (and whose character, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” is far from home in a strange land), acquits herself well in a difficult role. Mattie’s rapid-fire conversation, in formal language (she rarely uses contractions), makes her seem eerily self-possessed if occasionally dangerously close to stilted. Bridges, that most natural of actors, gives an entirely different kind of performance: loose and playful, not worrying too much about whether we can understand him (often we can’t, but never mind). Together, accompanied by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon; a little bland), they invite us on their quest on a sparse frontier beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins; it’s a darkly comedic kick just to overhear them.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“Why do they hang him so high?” asks Mattie, as they come across a corpse hung near the top of a tree. “I do not know,” replies Cogburn, unruffled. “Possibly in the belief it would make him more dead.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.