“True Grit” (1969) is a curious choice for a remake, since John Wayne won an Academy Award for the classic Western with a stellar cast featuring the likes of Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Glen Campbell. But that impressive pedigree did nothing to discourage the Coen Brothers from assembling their own A-list ensemble to mount a second screen adaptation of Charles Portis’ scintillating serial novel.
In “True Grit 2.0,” Jeff Bridges recreates the iconic role of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a fearless, former Rebel who lost his right eye to a bullet during the Civil War. The weather-beaten veteran boasts of having ridden with William Quantrill, a real-life Confederate Captain famous for the 1863 massacre of a couple hundred citizens of Lawrence, Kansas in a pre-dawn raid on an abolitionist enclave.
This mythical tale of retribution and redemption unfolds in Fort Smith, Arkansas in the 1870s, where we find the film’s young narrator, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), eager to hire the meanest bounty hunter around to apprehend Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the killer who has just murdered her father in cold blood. Upon learning of Rooster’s reputation for ruthlessness, the spunky, 14-year-old immediately seeks to retain his services, matter-of-factly introducing herself with the titular line, “They tell me you’re a man with true grit.”
She goes on to explain to the grizzled gunslinger that she has good reason to believe the fugitive has joined a gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and fled on horseback into Choctaw territory. Eventually, Rooster, who’s ostensibly battling booze, grudgingly agrees to track down Chaney with revenge-minded Mattie in tow.
Before setting out, quite by coincidence, they cross paths with LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger already on Chaney’s trail for another slaying. Then, behind Mattie’s back, the two lawmen strike a separate deal to join forces, and they secretly start across the desert without her. But the headstrong heroine will have none of it. She catches up, and insists on accompanying the would-be double-crossers on the perilous trek into Oklahoma.
The trio’s ensuing sojourn intermittently allows for lighthearted interludes of levity as a little comic relief, such as a tension-breaking spanking of Mattie’s bottom. Still, the plot does sober significantly, as it makes its inexorable march to a fateful showdown with Chaney.
Jeff Bridges must be commended for his fresh interpretation of the roguish Rooster Cogburn as an endearing contradiction of machismo and vulnerability which actually enables you to forget about John Wayne after the film’s first five minutes or so. Kudos are equally in order for eight-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose sweeping, big sky panoramas are nothing short of spectacular.
My only quibble, here, is with the Coen Brothers’ who have simply served up too tame an homage to the Western genre which fails to up the ante in terms of intensity, a disappointing contrast to the relatively-riveting 3:10 to Yuma. Now that bloody shoot ‘em up was truly no country for a young cowgirl.