Jeff Bridges dons John Wayne's sizable boots in True Grit, a grittier Coen Brothers version of the tale that won the Duke his Oscar 40 years ago. And if the fit isn't as snug and the performance not as warm and exultant as Wayne's, the movie still manages to be a most worthy Western remake.
In that stilted, period-perfect speech that characterized the Charles Portis novel and the first film, the adult Mattie Ross of Yell County narrates a tale from her past, when her daddy was murdered in rural Arkansas. She was 14 then, and screen newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a pistol in this part. The moment we meet young Mattie, dressed in black, she's haggling with the undertaker. And asking her age, mid-argument, will just annoy her.
"That is a silly question."
She nags a poor horse trader (Dakin Matthews), threatening him with legal action from her family attorney, the unseen J. Noble Daggett. She ruffles feathers, even as she earns the occasional "I admire your sand." Here's a girl with grit.
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Mattie is a stubborn kid — "I intend to see Papa's killer hanged." Nothing will dissuade her. And as she asks who to hire for the dirty job of chasing the murderer, one man's description meets her approval: "A pitiless man; fear doesn't enter into his thinking." That would be Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man, she hopes, "with true grit."
Bridges gives Rooster a lurching, slack-jawed, top-heavy quality. This is a one-eyed drunk who won't brook any questioning of his past or his trigger-happy methods. This Rooster barely tolerates Mattie, even after she's met his price for setting off into the Indian Territories in search of the killer, Tom Chaney.
Matt Damon is an interesting, chatty choice to play LaBoeuf, an articulate pipe-smoker who is entirely too proud of his Texas Ranger status. He wangles his way onto their quest, as does Mattie, who stuffs newspaper into her daddy's hat so it'll fit and will not be brushed off by these two bluff lawmen. "I will see the thing done."
Their odyssey is every bit as epic as you remember. Cogburn and La Boeuf refight the Civil War over their respective parts in it, and Rooster never misses a chance to land a cheap shot, such as ridiculing the Texan's horse — "How long you boys been mounted on sheep?
The sense of a time and place is as vivid here as it was in the original film. The violent encounters are more violent than those in John Wayne's day (although not by much), and the story retains an ambling pace. And if the score is less heroic and the scenery less alpine, at least the cast and script are every bit as good as in the much-loved original film. Josh Brolin (W.) brings a brutish humor to the thuggish Chaney, and durable character actor Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) plays the outlaw leader whom Chaney has hooked up with, Lucky Ned Pepper. (Robert Duvall played Lucky Ned in 1969.)
There's pleasure in hearing Bridges deliver lines that the Duke made famous — "I can't do nothing for you, son. Your partner's killed you, and I've done for him." The funniest scene — the horse-trading (Strother Martin was in the original) — is still hilarious. It's not a better film, just a slightly different, slightly darker one, lacking big laughs and those out-of-body moments that John Wayne, acting like a man who could smell that Oscar, delivered in a truly larger-than-life performance.
Bridges is more than Wayne's match as an actor. But even in his iconic roles, he's never more or less than absolutely authentic and real-life-size. Something bigger was called for here, both from him and the Coen brothers behind the camera for this sturdy, still- entertaining remake.