Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
With Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfeld
These are not words typically applied to Coen brothers films, but their adaptation of Charles Portis' classic American western, despite being well populated with corpses some rotten and fetid, others freshly created in our presence is surpassingly sweet, tender even.
The movie marks the reunion of Jeff Bridges with his Big Lebowski directors, who give him a part he can really chew on in the allegedly pitiless U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, a one-eyed fat man with a fondness for whiskey and deadpan humor. ("That didn't pan out," he says after a particularly messy shoot-out.) But this is not his movie in the same way the lively, schlocky 1969 version was John Wayne's (it got the Duke his Oscar). The spotlight focuses, as did Portis, on narrator Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl determined to find her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and bring him to justice.
A Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is already hunting Chaney, but Mattie briskly dismisses him as a spur-jangling poseur and instead hires Rooster, whom she believes to have true grit. The joke is that no one has more grit than Mattie herself, and all these grown men come to see and admire that even vicious outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). The remarkable Steinfeld, about to turn 14, has the adult poise and lingering childlike delicacy to capture the central incongruity of the part: that this remains no country for a young girl, even though Mattie is no ordinary one.
In all ways, the Coens' True Grit is a classier, truer version of the tale. It's beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins in appropriately scrubby territory. Damon expertly navigates the line between foolish and lovable, and Bridges is sublime. As you'd expect from the Coens, the bloody and weird rise and shine. The small disappointment, based on the sky-high standards the brothers have set, is that True Grit is a classic expertly revisited, not one newly reborn.
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