For diehard Hollywood purists, John Wayne is the quintessential Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed guzzling federal marshal who, under the employ of precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross, weeds the Wild West of bad guys in the 1969 classic, “True Grit.”
Now, filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have the grit and audacity to redo the movie that won the Oscar for the legendary Wayne. Sliding into Rooster’s saddle is an Oscar winner himself, Jeff Bridges. With a slurrier, but still sharp interpretation of the 19th century lawman, Bridges affectively and infectiously rolls novelist Charles Portis’ salty dialogue around in his mouth before spitting it out like a wad of tobacco.
Scene-stealing newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is more precise as befits her character, who has an unbending focus on one objective: Bring the coward, who killed her father to justice. That coward is an evil dimwit named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). He murders as soon as he realizes it’s his only alternative…which can take some time, though morality plays no part in the thought process.
Matt Damon plays LaBoeuf (pronounced, “LaBeef”), the pretentious Texas Ranger, providing the third corner of the triangular mini-posse on the trail of Chaney, who has fallen in with a seriously bad guy, Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, no relation) and his gang. Looking as much like a little kid playing cowboy as does Mattie, LaBoeuf only survives because he has a good heart beneath his bravado.
For the Coens. “True Grit” is a companion piece to their Academy Awardwinning hit, “No Country For Old Men.” While the films’ time frames are a hundred years apart, you’d hardly know it. Both show men with a redeemable moral code battling those devoid of any, against the sprawling, empty landscape of the western United States.