If it rhymed easier, “You don’t remake a classic John Wayne movie” might have squeezed in after “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape” in Jim Croce’s hummable cautionary tale. The cinematic equivalent of a fish’s bicycle, those writin’ and directin’ Coen brothers’ choice to revisit True Grit seemed at best unnecessary and at worst an act of art house hubris. Surely they would weave their patented avant garde nihilism or black-hearted humor into it, sullying the whole affair.
Nah. Turns out, they just wanted to make a kick-ass Western … and they did that and then some.
True Grit is the leanest cut of film meat you’re likely to chew. Trimmed of all expository fat, we open with precocious-bordering-on-bitchy, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) as she tries to hire a bounty hunter to find her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She’s referred to Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed drunk who cracks nothing but one-liners and whiskey bottles. Although he likes to keep his work as solitary as his eye, Rooster is joined by the insistent Mattie and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), the first cowboy fop in screen history.
The reluctantly formed trio spends the remainder of the film hunting down Chaney and his boss, Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), across unforgiving terrain while enduring even-less-forgiving observations from Rooster. Guns go bang, horses gallop and pulses pound, as the Coens remind everyone that the only truly American genre ain’t just still viable, it’s sorely missed.
Outdoing his work in last year’s Crazy Heart , Bridges is not “doing The Dude” again, nor is he aping Wayne. His Rooster is affable but manic, decidedly original and a hell of a lot of fun. Actually, those descriptions work pretty well for the movie as a whole. Bridges isn’t alone either, as Damon’s dandy cowpoke and Steinfeld’s endearingly angry woman-child aren’t just supporting characters, they’re two legs of the tripod on which the whole thing rests. Heck, the Coens didn’t even fall for the obligatory fetishizing of sprawling scenery, opting for tight shots with ample silence and falling snow.
True Grit is damn good, no-frills, boy-howdy, Western action at its finest. It’s neither meaningful nor important, but as it turns out, that was never the motivation for the remake. Turns out the answer to “Why remake True Grit ?” was simple: “Eh, why not?” It was just about crafting pure Americana entertainment, and boy did this Rooster hit his mark.
Grade = A-