By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
This True Grit redo recalls The Duke by way of The Dude.
The 1969 western, True Grit, offered John (“Duke”) Wayne the chance to win his sole Oscar for his colorful performance as drunken, cantankerous, eyepatch-wearing US marshal Rooster Cogburn.
Melancholy and character-driven, the second True Grit, set in the 1870s, is based not on the previous film but on the 1968 novel by Charles Portis that inspired it. In it, a resolute, vengeance-seeking 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, hires Cogburn to help her find the man who ruthlessly shot and killed her father.
She turns to the tough-as-nails Cogburn because he seems as brutal and remorseless and violence-prone as the villain she hunts.
In their journey through the badlands in search of murderer Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin, Mattie and Rooster are joined by a straight-arrow Texas Ranger who’s also on Chaney’s trail, played by Matt Damon, and they encounter pragmatic outlaw Ned Pepper, played by Barry Pepper.
The revenge saga has a straightforward narrative arc, despite the Mattie-years-later framing device. But what the Coens expend energy in showcasing, at the same time reducing the broad-comedy quotient, is the dialogue, which is deadpan, quirky, rapid-fire, occasionally florid to a fault, and always archly, self-consciously witty.
In storytelling terms, the Coens (A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, Fargo), co-writers and co-directors of True Grit, are characteristically deadpan and remote. Eccentric artists that they are, they love upsetting generic expectations.
This time they’re more faithful to the source story about the pursuit of justice and hunger for retribution than the original film was as a vehicle for John Wayne. Thus Bridges does not dominate the proceedings the way Wayne did, because the point-of-view in this version is overwhelmingly that of the central character, Mattie.
Bridges — coming off a best actor Oscar win for Crazy Heart and reuniting with the Coens, with whom he collaborated on his iconic performance as “The Dude” in 1998’s The Big Lebowksi — plays it not quite as larger-than-life as his predecessor did.
Bridges is characteristically fine as the father substitute for fatherless teenager Mattie, who’s trying to display for Rooster the same titular moxie that she sees in him. Despite the surface flamboyance of his Rooster, Bridges manages to convey the calibration of his feelings for stubborn, whip-smart Mattie to evolve from a combination of dismissive disinterest and financial self-interest to actual concern and affection with typical Bridges no-fuss finesse.
Meanwhile, Damon makes his usual sturdy contribution in support, bringing his sly sense of humor to his odd-couple exchanges with Rooster, and Steinfeld holds the screen with the two veterans in impressive style.
With the paucity of westerns of late, it’s a bracing kick to see this dip in the genre pool, one that is unusually formulaic and conventional for the staunchly — and sometimes self-indulgently — idiosyncratically creative Coen Brothers. But its pleasures fall a tad short of our memories of the original.
So we’ll track down 2½ stars out of 4 for a second helping, 41 years later, of True Grit, a tasty western snack available at the amusement park that is Coeny Island.