Through two film adapations now, Charles Portis' 1968 novel, "True Grit," has had its story altered and its characters meet different fates. One thing has remained nearly untouched: its pure, unadorned, almost Biblical language. Oddly enough, that's a problem.
Set after the Civil War, "True Grit" is related in the voice of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who is tracking down a drifter who shot her father. Bull-headed and self-righteous but unshakably moral, Mattie sticks to the facts, eschews metaphor and rarely uses contractions, as if to speak any other way would be dishonest. She could be a younger version of the dour wife in Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (only she'd be holding the pitchfork).
In Henry Hathaway's 1969 film, an obviously 20-ish Kim Darby played Mattie; John Wayne earned an Oscar as dissolute lawman Rooster Cogburn; and Glen Campbell passed muster as dandyish gunman La Boeuf. Often, the novel's exacting prose got the better of them.
Now the Coen brothers are tackling the material, and their cast fares much better. Respectively, they are Hailee Steinfeld, a year younger than her character; an appealingly rumpled Jeff Bridges; and a thoroughly likable Matt Damon. (Josh Brolin appears as the menacing drifter, Tom Chaney.) Meantime, the Coens savor the novel's themes - their favorites - of justice, revenge and fate.
Yet the Coens treat Portis' vision so reverently that their own never appears. The film is well-paced and looks like a Western should, but it feels pinched and formal, perhaps a bit too much like its heroine. Mattie and her world remain most alive on the page, where they were born.