Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
(2010, PG-13, 110 min)
★ ★ ★

My favorite scenes in True Grit are the battles of wits involving Hailee Steinfeld, in a breakthrough performance as 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who consistently proves to be of sharper mind than her older male counterparts, who talk down to her only to have her talk down right back. The Coen brothers wrote and directed, adapting a novel by Charles Portis that was previously made into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, and they give her rich, dense dialogue that she fires with the precision of an expert gunslinger and with such poise and confidence that we know immediately that Mattie can get the better of anyone.

Matt Damon, as LaBoeuf

The rest of the film plays out as more or less a conventional shoot-‘em-up Western, a solid entertainment, though a bit disappointing to come from the men behind No Country for Old Men. Mattie’s father has been murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she needs to hire a US Marshal to round him up. She chooses the ruthless drunkard Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who when she first sees him is testifying in court about a man he killed in the line of duty; it was self-defense … er, maybe not. He initially refuses, but there’s no winning an argument with Mattie Ross.

They set off together, joined by another man with a stake in Chaney’s capture, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), whose name, pronounced “Le Beef,” always got a laugh from the audience. The men in the film are a frequently laughable lot, arrogant in front of the little girl but buffoonish. Cogburn stumbles and slurs; combined with his mumbling drawl, sometimes you’d need subtitles just to understand him. (I was reminded of Boomhauer from the animated series King of the Hill.) An injury to LaBoeuf soon causes him to speak in a comical lisp. Even Chaney himself, the subject of all their efforts, proves to be little more than a lowly henchman taking orders from Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). To get anything done in the Coens’ Wild West, it seems, takes a woman.

The humor of True Grit is its greatest pleasure, giving the Coens an outlet for their idiosyncratic style — in a subtle Fargo-way and not an overbearing Burn After Reading-way. The rest is by-the-book. It’s well-crafted, as we’d expect, with excellent cinematography by frequent Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins. If my recommendation is a bit soft it’s because it also seems like a creatively safe film. The Coens don’t stretch themselves or the boundaries of the Western genre. They operate within them, effectively but not audaciously. Were it as bold as Mattie Ross, that might have been something.

Note: True Grit is rated PG-13, despite graphic shootings and stabbings, and one part where a man’s fingers are cut off. The King’s Speech earned an R-rating from the MPAA, solely for its use of strong language during Colin Firth’s treatments to cure his speech impediment. So, for the record, you can shoot a man in the face and get a PG-13, but if he yells “Goddammit!” on the way down, you’ll get slapped with an R for inappropriate content. Nice to have them looking out for America’s kids.