When we first see Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, he is an unholy mess of a man. He doesn't speak so much as gargle word-sounding noises through phlegm, his nose is a tessellated bouquet of gin blossoms, and he sways in the breeze like his spine has been pickled. Bridges makes John Wayne's crotchety old chubby Cogburn in the 1969 True Grit look like Mary Poppins; he's a broken-down cowboy whose sole talent is being the meanest motherfucker in the room.
Bridges's Cogburn plays perfectly against Hailee Steinfeld as prim Mattie Ross. Ross is serious, efficient, and curt—a 14-year-old girl so wounded by her father's murder that she emotionally cauterized herself into a robot programmed only for revenge. It's a brilliant pairing because Bridges's Cogburn is nothing but emotion (when he and Ross are on the trail of the killer, Cogburn doesn't stop talking about his feelings for even a second). Toss in Matt Damon's clever turn as a self- important, stuffy Texas ranger named LaBoeuf for comic relief—in another life, it seems, this cowboy would have made a legendarily great accountant—and you've got yourself a great western.
The Coen brothers forego many of their directorial tics for the sake of the movie—there are very few dazzling camera tricks, for example, allowing the viewer to admire the truly great cinematography. All you're left with are stellar performances, the eerie New Mexico landscape, and the gorgeous language of Charles Portis. Portis—one of the greatest American humorists, possibly third only to Vonnegut and Twain—wrote True Grit in Ross's own voice, and it's as Shakespearean as American English has ever sounded. The lack of contractions give everything an alien cadence—"I am dying!"—that adds to the film's spare setting and occasionally brutal worldview. It's not a perfect adaptation, but it does a better job of capturing Portis's unsentimental language than the earlier film.
True Grit makes a few mistakes along the way. Bridges's performance is a bit uneven—his Cogburn is less broken-down in some scenes than in others—and the score is unimaginative. But it's a story, an old-fashioned yarn, about two of the unlikeliest people thrown together by circumstance, and about the beauty that can grow out of the most barren soil.