It’s hard to imagine bigger boots to fill than the ones that earned John Wayne his Oscar in “True Grit,” and yet Jeff Bridges handily reinvents the iconic role of Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ back-to-the-book remake. Though the sibs return things to the perspective of vengeance-bent 14-year-old Mattie Ross, all eyes are definitely on Cogburn. Rather than a case of the Dude doing the Duke, Bridges’ irascible old cuss is a genuine original who feels larger than the familiar saga that contains him. Awfully gritty for its PG-13 rating, this characteristically well-crafted outing could draw a wide range of audiences, ranking among the Coens’ more commercial pics.
The story of a righteous young woman (played by unknown Hailee Steinfeld, her plain-faced scowl framed by a pair of girlish braids) who enlists the help of the meanest, toughest lawman she can find to track down her father’s killer (a pitiless Josh Brolin), “True Grit” fits the bill of properties that film purists would rather leave untouched. But in many ways, Henry Hathaway’s film was already old-fashioned by the standards of late-’60s Western storytelling (made all the more apparent when Sam Peckinpah’s bloody “The Wild Bunch” opened one week later in June 1969), and is therefore ripe for retelling.
What that original film offered was a revolutionary depiction of a frontier teen assertive enough to handle her own finances, trade barbs with a pair of surly bounty hunters and avenge her father’s murder, even if it meant staring down the varmint herself — themes that reflected shifting gender roles at the time of its release.
While the Coens significantly expand Mattie’s role, scrubbing away all sentimentality in the process, the character’s independent nature feels significantly less resonant 40 years on. No matter, the Coens are strictly apolitical filmmakers whose interest in the material lies not in exploring gender-related themes; rather, Charles Portis’ novel poses the opportunity to add another entry to their gallery of regional and period-specific portraiture, a career-long obsession that spans a wide range of genres, while remaining laser-focused on capturing the vernacular and mannerisms of the characters involved.
Portis makes a logical target, considering his ear for authentic dialogue and wry wit, with “True Grit” offering a choice opportunity to attempt their first authentic Western (a far different beast in tone and energy from the 1980s-set “No Country for Old Men”). The Coens show their appreciation for Portis’ prose by hewing close to the language of his novel, evident from Mattie’s tone-setting opening narration to the colorful barbs she trades with her two traveling companions — the second being an indignant Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (rhymes with “the chief”), sincerely yet self-deprecatingly played by Matt Damon.
But the brothers also severely rein in the humor, which the book offers in spades — a curious call in light of the often-satirical undercurrent in their other films. What comedy does survive exists primarily between Bridges and Damon, whose characters are constantly undermining one another in Mattie’s presence. Since the broad strokes of the story are known by most, the Coens are free to indulge in serious character investigation. And yet, one major, inescapable carryover from the 1969 film can be found in Cogburn’s age — like Wayne, Bridges is a good 20 years older than the 40-ish character Portis imagined.
In keeping with the novel, Steinfeld’s Mattie is a plain, almost homely girl (characters frequently joke about her stern, unladylike features) whose unrealistic sense of justice doesn’t jibe with the untamed wilderness of the Choctaw Nation, where her trek unfolds. Though the Coens tone down Mattie’s Scripture-quoting sensibility, her dispassionate view of violence matches the directors’ own, which makes for several unflinching displays of Wild West punishment — and a return to the book’s tough-luck epilogue.
The film’s heavily styled language feels distancing at first, not unlike the heightened dialogue in HBO’s “Deadwood,” with the actors’ drawling delivery making some of the lines virtually indecipherable. Even without catching every word, the subtext of each exchange is clear, as when Mattie dickers with a horse trader (Dakin Matthews) for her late father’s money, demonstrating that she can hold her own in a man’s world.
In what surely ranks among the most peculiar introductions in screen history, the Coens set Mattie’s first encounter with Cogburn through the wooden door of an outhouse, demystifying his character from the beginning, only to build him back up during the rather taxing trial scene that follows. Bridges pulls off a total physical reinvention, complete with whiskey-stained moustache, rotting underbite and trademark eyepatch. The actor seems to have absorbed the character into his very marrow, and though Cogburn seems perfectly set in his ways, the great pleasure of the film is watching how his attitude toward Mattie goes from patronizing to paternal over the course of their adventure.
As always, the Coens’ support team help pull off the directors’ ambitions, with Carter Burwell supplying a full-bodied reinterpretation of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (the same hymn featured in “The Night of the Hunter”) and Roger Deakins’ widescreen lensing serving to de-romanticize the terrain and the characters themselves. For the most part, “True Grit” resists the unspoiled vistas we’ve come to expect from Westerns, favoring the craggy, unkempt terrain of Cogburn’s face instead.