"HE IS A PITILESS MAN, and fear don't enter into his thinkin'," says one of True Grit's characters about US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, before adding one more thing: "He likes to pull a cork."
True. Say what you will about his frequently frayed moral fiber, but the one-eyed Cogburn is both enthusiastic about and rather skillful at getting totally shitfaced. (He's also good at gleefully shooting things while he's drunk, and he also rules at kicking over unsuspecting children, something that's always hilarious.) In 1969's film adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, Cogburn was played by Hollywood's default cowboy, John Wayne; here, in the Coen Brothers' version, he's played by a grizzled Jeff Bridges, who growls out his lines with a weary, gravelly drawl, generally being all sorts of badass.
Oh, yeah, and there's another thing Cogburn's good at: Helping little girls get bloody revenge! Early in True Grit, precocious, tough, and whip-smart 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) asks Cogburn for help tracking down her father's killer. Cogburn's naturally wary of taking a job from a smarty-pants pipsqueak with Laura Ingalls Wilder hair; presumably he has better things to do, like drunkenly shooting pistols and finding kids to kick over. But after the motor-mouthed Mattie talks a few circles around him—and ponies up some cash—Cogburn finds himself en route to lawless Indian country, where Mattie's father's killer was last seen. He's soon joined by Mattie—who matter-of-factly insists on seeing her vengeance done through—and also by a proud, frustrated Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who's spent months unsuccessfully hunting the same man. While Cogburn—between pulls on his whiskey bottles—soon discounts his traveling partners as "a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop," it's LaBoeuf who best describes their predicament. "This is no longer a manhunt," LaBeouf says after following the aimless, drunken Cogburn. "It's a debauch."
It's a hell of a debauch. Every year—or at least every couple of years—the Coens put out a movie, and every year—or at least every couple of years—said movie is one of the best in recent memory. True Grit is no exception. Funny, thrilling, and moving, True Grit is the sort of genre picture that reminds us why genres exist in the first place: When all the factory-made gears and pieces are accounted for, and when all of 'em are settled into place by inspired people who know what they're doing, the end result is a thing that clicks together, smooth and precise.
The fact that True Grit is about as good as westerns get is helped by fantastic performances from Bridges, Steinfeld, and Damon (as well as smaller turns from Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin), but it's the Coens' continually impressive skills behind the camera that make the whole thing work so goddamn well. Once again teaming up with frequent collaborators like cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, the Coens' sharp senses of humor and sharper instincts in the editing bay make True Grit whir along at an increasingly engaging pace, its patient narrative of determination, redemption, and revenge peppered with laugh-out-loud dialogue and swift, striking violence. (It also has the best snake scene since Raiders of the Lost Ark, just in case you're keeping track.)
This holiday season is crammed with market-tested stuff that's been engineered for every conceivable demographic: Tron for the geeks, The Tempest and The King's Speech for the people with NPR bumper stickers, I Love You Phillip Morris for the gays, Yogi Bear and Little Fockers and Gulliver's Travels for the inbred. Unlike any of those films, True Grit has more or less universal appeal: Big-screen westerns might not be as numerous as they were back when John Wayne wore Cogburn's grimy eyepatch, but when there's a good one, just about everybody still gets excited to see it. This is one of them. You should go.