True Grit reminded me of Lolita, though not in that way. The Coen Brothers’ new rendering of Charles Portis’ novel of Arkansas frontier retribution is remarkable for its lack of perversity—one character voices a slightly unseemly interest in the 14-year-old heroine, and another is graphically relieved of some fingers but, by Coen standards, everybody behaves with relative civility. No, I’m thinking of the way Vladimir Nabokov’s novel opens with a foreword noting that the title character is already dead; as Martin Amis wrote, “the sweat of death trickles through Lolita. ” True Grit’s tone is not so rancid, but the film is narrated from a half century after its events, which begin with a man lying dead in the street and end with a woman keeping watch over a graveyard. “You must pay for everything in the world, one way or another,” says that woman, whose name is Mattie Ross. “Nothing is free except the grace of God.” The movie, as it travels from one casket to another, tells the story of how Mattie arrives at such a polarized view. Calvinists are not born, they are made—and Mattie is a girl who experiences grace and companionship only briefly, in the pursuit of violence.
The knee-jerk reaction to True Grit’s somber mood is to wonder whether it’s the first “straightforward” movie the Coens have made. No matter that this question plays into the hands of those sinister people who think art either pays sincere tribute to heartland values or is the work of sarcastic Jews. Anyone who has read Ethan Coen’s collection of short stories, Gates of Eden—or has watched any of the brothers’ films since they settled into a groove with No Country for Old Men—will recognize a world where ornate language is used to justify base motives, where fat men cling to power behind big desks, and where humor isn’t a series of jokes but a tracker’s sensitivity to the scent of the absurd. It isn’t funny that Mattie’s father is shot dead in the night, or that the only place she has to bed down is in the mortuary by his corpse, but it is sort of funny that the undertaker lets her sleep in a casket with such solemn permission.
Then, of course, there is Jeff Bridges. If his performance as Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the U.S. marshal whom Mattie hires to find her father’s killer, has notes of Jeff Lebowski—as does his Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, and his Kevin Flynn in Tron: Legacy—it may not be that he’s a lazy man, so much as that the Coens discovered something wondrously relaxed inside this previously underappreciated actor, and he keeps returning to it, because…well, he’s the man for his time and place. Bridges’ drunken lawman is essentially a comic turn, a sharpshooting grandpa who just wants to tell campfire stories, and it leaves the movie’s emotions to Hailee Steinfeld—she plays Mattie as Laura Ingalls Wilder with a law degree—and Matt Damon, whose Texas Ranger is painfully aware of his own ridiculousness, and is all the more hurt that everyone else notices it too.
The last time True Grit was made into a film was in 1969, as an Oscar vehicle for John Wayne—an inexplicably chipper affair, almost a children’s movie. Glen Campbell played the Ranger role, and sang a gooey title ballad with the lyric, “One day, little girl, the sadness will leave your face.” The Coens’ picture flatly contradicts that prediction, and its music is Carter Burwell’s elegiac piano settings of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” In the movie’s culmination, Mattie is herself cradled in great arms, and the shot recalls John Wayne at the end of another movie—The Searchers, where his mercy only compensates so much. To appreciate the bleak but not hopeless world the Coens are mapping, you have to recognize both how Mattie is saved, and how much she has lost.