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In the new True Grit, Jeff Bridges makes a better Rooster than John Wayne

Boldly reanimating the comic Western that secured John Wayne his Oscar 41 years ago, the Coen Brothers' True Grit is well-wrought, if overly talkative, and seriously ambitious. Opening with a strategically abbreviated Old Testament proverb ("The wicked flee when none pursueth"), the film returns the Coens to the all-American sagebrush and gun-smoke landscape that has best nourished their wise-guy sensibility (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men). This perverse buddy tale, in which an implacable fourteen-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) bonds in vengeance with the one-eyed, one-note bounty-hunting windbag marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role), is one of the brothers' least facetious movies — despite a prolonged meet-cute as little Mattie stubbornly attempts to roust Rooster from a rustic privy to secure his aid in tracking her father's murderer into Indian territory.

The Coens are still themselves. As one colleague remarked — unprompted — upon leaving the screening where True Grit was previewed for New York critics, "They always do something to make you hate them." But True Grit's most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethical — and less Hollywood than film-school. The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movie — not the 1969 True Grit, which is, Wayne's built-in mythic valence aside, in every way inferior to the Coen version, but the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter, whose recurring hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," is repeated throughout the new True Grit.

For the most part, the Coens' is a highly enjoyable yarn with a full panoply of frontier bozos. However hammily he rasps and fumfers, the Dude's Rooster is more nuanced and less overbearing than the Duke's, as well as more original. Never less than disciplined, Matt Damon is a strong foil to Bridges's rumbling, stumbling, grumbling, grizzled scapegrace, as the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (a part originally played by singer Glen Campbell), who joins the magical mystery tour.

Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges in True Grit.
Paramount Pictures
Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges in True Grit.

Details

Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Based on the novel by Charles Portis. Starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfeld.

Once constituted, the posse makes for a mouthy, self-aggrandizing trio, although it's relentless little Mattie who serves as the movie's key gimmick: She's self-possessed, schoolmarmish, full of sass and downright uncanny.

The Coens manage to render Choctaw country uncanny as well; the spectacle of a corpse dangling from a tree and a bear seemingly bestride a horse are portents worthy of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The brothers have always been good on scary outlaws (in this case, Josh Brolin) and, with its sod houses and bleak weather, their West is as inhospitable as it should be.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Wayne's clownish performance, True Grit I was the comfortingly "normal" middle-American Western of its season, opening at Radio City in time for the Fourth of July, a week after The Wild Bunch splattered screens with war-movie carnage and a few months before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid insouciantly trashed the genre's remaining moral pretensions. The Coens' True Grit is considerably more faithful to Charles Portis's novel than was the 1969 movie, and, consequently, far darker.

For years now, just about every credible Western — Unforgiven, Dead Man, Wild Bill, The Assassination of Jesse James — has been an oddity, if not a walking corpse. True Grit belongs with these ghost stories and, in suggesting that we're all haunted by things we can't understand, it carries its own Coen-trademarked mystery. Whereas the full biblical proverb that introduces True Grit ends with praise for the bravery of the righteous, the Coens cut directly to the chase, suggesting only the power of a guilty conscience.

 
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