Mattie is a pragmatic and determined young girl, with a maturity way beyond her years. She arrives in a small town where her father was recently murdered and her mission is simple: to hire a man to help her track down the killer. The sheriff recommends Rooster as the ‘meanest’ option, and that’s enough. She ignores Rooster’s rudeness and drinking and stalks him until he agrees. It’s the beginning of an oddball, Platonic romance, although the Coens ditch the explicit admiration of Rooster’s ‘she reminds me of me’ line from the 1969 film. Theirs is a testy partnership that thaws until they reach a lasting bond.
The opening shot of Mattie’s father lying dead outside a tavern, lit only by the light from the porch sets the scene for the Coens’ attractive yet no-nonsense spin on this tale. It also establishes the film’s look. Before Mattie and Rooster head into the wild, the film’s colours range from oatmeal white and sackcloth brown to urine yellow. Once outdoors, Roger Deakins’s photography honours the barren, wintry landscape but holds back from romantic longing. There are two montage sequences of journeys over land, and that’s enough to establish the epic nature of the story and the place.
Bridges is laidback, irascible and mumbling as Rooster, and all the better for it. But the Coens’ trump card is Steinfeld. Thirteen at the time of filming, she’s a revelation. She plays Mattie as hard, but not cold, and is smart enough to show the chinks in her armour. Matt Damon takes the Glen Campbell role as LaBoeuf and plays it much less pretty as the Texas Ranger who joins Mattie and Rooster in their horseback hunt.
The Coens have made a western that assumes a pleasing position between stately and earthy. There’s plenty of black humour and the brothers don’t ignore the grim realities of danger and death, but this is no ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’. They scrimp on neither warmth nor wit. There’s love, too, for the values, language and landscape of the time, and as such it’s a fairly traditional film, as stressed by Carter Burwell’s quietly monumental and wistful score. It could be the Coens’ most straightforward film, but it’s also one of their best.