The Coen brothers' excellent western True Grit is a second and rather different version of Charles Portis's novel, rather than a remake of the 1969 film that brought John Wayne an Oscar as the one-eyed bounty hunter Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Portis's novel, a demotic classic in the tradition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is narrated by Mattie Ross, a prim, Presbyterian spinster looking back from the 1920s to the great adventure of her life. In 1878, just 13 years after the civil war, she set out at the age of 14 to bring to justice the crooked hired hand Tom Chaney, who murdered her father in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Although she was well played by the 21-year-old Kim Darby as a perky modern miss in the first film, the picture was dominated by Wayne.
A controversial figure at the time, Wayne was loathed by many for his arrogant rightwing politics and the previous year his stridently patriotic The Green Berets had been picketed by anti-war protesters. But he was always popular in westerns, and especially in True Grit, where he was perceived to be mocking the gruff frontier bully he'd been playing ever since his screen persona was reshaped for Howard Hawks's Red River. His Cogburn had a big heart behind his marshal's star and a twinkle in his remaining eye, in his case the right, which may or may not have been making a political point.
The Coens restore Mattie's centrality. First, they've cast the 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who plays her as a tough frontier farm girl reared on the Protestant work ethic with a firm sense of right and wrong. Her strong, dark eyebrows and carefully braided hair declare her earnestness. Second, their film begins with her speaking the novel's opening paragraph as her father lies dead in the street at Fort Smith, the snow swirling around him as she declares her intention to revenge his blood. This introduces her as controller of her own narrative and establishes the language of the King James Bible that she shares with those around her. Everyone speaks a formal English with no elisions and they delight in carefully rounded phrases and allusions.
Arriving on her mission at Fort Smith, the seat of the infamous "Hanging Judge" Isaac Charles Parker, she joins the happy crowd attending a triple hanging. The first two condemned men deliver farewell speeches; the third, an Indian, is interrupted during his first sentence by having the black sack pulled over his head and the hangman pulling the lever. This reflects the film's gallows humour, realism and brutal social commentary.
Mattie discovers the wicked Chaney has moved into the Indian Territory, the lawless land that's now the state of Oklahoma. Though within Judge Parker's jurisdiction, it is for many a no-go area and Mattie needs a man like Cogburn to take her there. In the novel, the local sheriff describes Chaney as being "now over in the territory". The Coens turn this into his having "lit out for the territory", a nod in the direction of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the phrase occurs in the book's penultimate sentence.
Fort Smith is not a welcoming place. The Irish undertaker who has prepared her father's corpse, the proprietress of the hotel where she stays and a sly businessman she must deal with all attempt to take advantage of her age and what they think of as her inexperience. In each case, she manages, amusingly and admirably, to drive a hard bargain. The same proves true of her relationship with the boozy Rooster Cogburn, whom she first addresses while he's closeted in a privy, and first meets when he appears in court explaining how he came to kill several men while bringing them to justice.
It's here we first become aware of Roger Deakins's excellent photography. The courtroom in the 1969 film is bland, nondescript. Now populated by men in dark business suits, it evokes the paintings of Thomas Eakins, the Philadelphia recorder of emerging middle-class life, and represents the bourgeois world that's encroaching on the frontier. This contrasts with the Indian Territory, a place of fear and freedom where Mattie will have her adventure with Cogburn and handsome Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who joins them in the pursuit of Chaney, also wanted for the murder of a Texas politician.
Jeff Bridges's Rooster is a wily, duplicitous, self-centred man and, as they journey west, he's revealed to have had a terrible domestic life and a dodgy professional one, first as a member of Quantrill's murderous guerrilla band during the civil war, later as an outlaw. LaBoeuf, on the other hand, is an upright lawman who served with a Virginia regiment in the war. Both, however, are on the trail to perform a job for money.
Neither has the dedication and determination that Mattie shows in her quest for justice and family honour. Traditionally, women in westerns are either golden-hearted whores providing pleasurable company or schoolmarms and homemakers, upholders of decency and determined to civilise their men. Children are there to learn from their role models or be misled by them. Mattie gives us something new, a 14-year-old girl who directs the lives and strengthens the moral resolve of the men reluctantly riding with her.
True Grit is a harsher, more sombre film than the Wayne version, the tone chillingly wintry rather than gently autumnal, the music less jaunty, more religious and pastoral. It's also funnier, yet never inviting the description "comic western". The villains, when they eventually appear, are perhaps a little less colourful than those in the 1969 film, and Jeff Bridges's diction lacks Wayne's clarity, though in other ways he's altogether more complex. It also has a brief, moving, beautifully staged epilogue set in 1903 that brings the picture to a satisfying conclusion.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010