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True Grit

by on December 22, 2010
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The Coen brothers’ remake of the film featuring John Wayne’s signature role seemed like a bad idea. And yet, despite not departing significantly from the 1969 film in plot, they’ve managed to put an entirely new and highly engaging twist on “True Grit” in terms of tone and mood.

Wayne’s outing as one-eyed drunkard/lawman Rooster Cogburn — he won an Oscar for it, and Jeff Bridges probably will get nominated, too, for the esame role — was a G-rated picture of high adventure and comedy. The Coen writing/directing duo, Joel and Ethan (“No Country for Old Men”), deliver an unsurprisingly darker version, both in the quantity of the violence and the timbre of the humor. (Although how this paean of bloody shootings, stabbings, hangings and severings got a PG-13 rating is another testament to the vagaries of the MPAA.)

Perhaps the Coens’ “True Grit” is best thought of not as a remake of the Wayne film, but an entirely new interpretation of the novel by Charles Portis. It is told from the perspective of an older woman remembering the seminal experience of her life at the age of 14 — her recollections no doubt colored by the passage of time and some intrusion of imagination.

Mattie Ross is surely the most obstinate, opinionated girl from Yell County, Arkansas. After her father is shot down by a no-account halfwit named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she attends to all the affairs, including transport of the body and haggling with a local businessman over the disposition of his mules.

Mattie is played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld in a film debut that immediately announces the arrival of a young but formidable talent. Her clear-eyed, head-on performance is so immediate and pure that we do more than adore Mattie; we respect the hell out of the little son of a gun.

Set on hiring a U.S. Marshal to hunt down Chaney, she chooses Cogburn because he is reputed to be the meanest. We first meet him being grilled in a courtroom by a defense lawyer who demands to know how many men he has shot in the line of duty. “Shot or killed?,” Cogburn lazily retorts, though it doesn’t feel like bluster.

Bridges goes completely sideways from the Duke in portraying Cogburn, whom he inhabits with a slouching, slurring, nonchalant competence. Rooster is overly fond of whiskey and is the first to admit he has grown too old and fat for this line of work, yet there’s no denying he gets the job done — even if it means waylaying culprits rather than arresting them and arranging facts to fit the outcome.

Mattie tags along through sheer stubbornness; she wants to see the job done and, if possible, pull the trigger on Chaney herself. Joining them is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who wears flamboyant buckskin and might seem boastful if he didn’t have the goods to back it up.

LaBoeuf has been hunting Chaney on another warrant for months and throws in with them, despite Cogburn’s constant insults and the presence of a girl. There’s also a thrilling, slightly creepy hint of attraction between the Ranger and Mattie, despite at least 20 years’ age difference.

The Coens’ world feels rich and detailed; the characters do and say things not just to further the plot but make us believe they have an expansive history of which we’re only seeing a tiny slice.

Cogburn talks while he rides, ruminating over ex-wives and the Green Frog, a tavern he used to own and run. He circles rope around his bedroll to keep snakes out, which sounds like nonsense — until you Google it and find out it works. (Their soft underbellies don’t like the feel.)

The language of the dialogue is comically formal and stiff, with hardly a contraction: “The ground is too hard. If these men wanted a decent burial, they should have got killed in the summer,” Cogburn notes.

But the Coens, who love to play around with the conventions of film genres, aren’t just goofing. They’re setting the audience up.

There’s a scene about an hour in of sudden, horrible violence, and we sense the filmmakers have been easing a noose around our necks with the tongue-in-cheek humor and stilted talk. That sharp bloodletting is them jerking our heads back, like the snap of a hangman plying his trade.

Remake, re-imagining, call it what you will — “True Grit” is truly the Coens’ best movie in a decade.

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