By BRUCE COLLIER
Nobody but the Coen Brothers would dare to tackle a remake not only of a legendary film, but of a legendary Western film featuring an Oscar-winning performance by a legendary film actor. True Grit wisely bypasses the 1969 Henry Hathaway film and hews to the novel that started it all. Written by Charles Portis in 1968, the concise tale of 14-year-old Mattie Ross’ quest to avenge her father’s murder in post-Civil War Arkansas was a huge bestseller in its day. It could be found in every respectable book store and was even taught in literature classes. What raised True Grit above the average pulp Western was not only its unusual choice of heroine (who doubles as narrator) but the ornate, formal and picturesque dialogue of the characters. Mattie and her associates wield the slang and witticisms of the period in lightning exchanges of dry humor and deadpan observation, in the style of Mark Twain’s memoirs of the Western frontier. “You think one on four is a dog fall?” asks a cocky outlaw, meaning an even match. An outside toilet is referred to as a “jakes” and Mattie is told she’s “no bigger than a corn nubbin.”
She’s small, but, as one character grudgingly tells her, “I admire your sand.” Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld portrays Mattie at age 14. Her mature, assured performance in this emotionally and physically demanding role should have her gunning for Oscar consideration.
The center of the film, of course, is the character of U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a kind of gunslinging Falstaff with a leather eyepatch and an ornery line of talk. “A pitiless man, double-tough, fear don’t enter into his thinking,” is a fellow lawman’s blunt description of the man Mattie hires to bring her father’s killer to account. This is the role, played by John Wayne, that earned him his Oscar. Bridges won his own statuette last year, which must have dispelled any lingering doubts anyone might have had about casting him in this potentially impossible role.
Bridges, though an actor of wider range than Wayne, does not surpass him in the role. Rather, he just steps around the Duke and barrels his way through it on his own terms, aided by the Coens’ faithful but leaner screenplay. Many of Cogburn’s memorable lines are the same, but they come from the book. Thankfully, the one that begins with “Fill your hand…” is intact. It just had to be. I can’t imagine anyone playing Rooster Cogburn and not being allowed to say it. Bridges plays him a shade or two darker, more irritable and menacing, in keeping with the generally darker tone of the film.
Matt Damon is a pleasant surprise as Texas Ranger La Boeuf, a role first played by singer Glen Campbell. The likable Campbell’s performance was always a weak point for me; he was obviously cast because of his enormous popularity in 1969, and they even wrote a theme song for him to sing. Damon strips the role down to its essentials. LaBoeuf is self-assured, thin-skinned, and almost comically vain. However, he takes his manhunting work seriously, which ultimately wins him respect.
True Grit, as rendered by the Coens, is like a Grimm fairy tale, the versions they don’t lighten up for kids. The outdoor settings, though beautiful, are full of dangers both animal and human. People shiver with chills and fevers, food is sparse and monotonous and modern conveniences like basic orthodontia just don’t exist. Just getting about the business of daily life requires plenty of grit. This movie really can’t be called a remake. It’s an artistic reinterpretation, and a skillful one.