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Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2010

True Grit

Jeff Bridges stars in new Western saga

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If her narrative is reliable, Mattie Ross must have been a precocious 14-year-old even before her father was shot dead by his hired hand, Tom Chaney. A pigtailed girl on the Western frontier, Mattie is as firm as an oak staff and drives hard bargains with the funeral parlor and stable in the town where her father was killed. Persistent as a river running to the sea, Mattie is determined to bring Chaney to justice, even if she has to do it herself. With that aim, she hires a disreputable, initially reluctant U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, to moonlight as a bounty hunter and rides with him into the Choctaw reservation where Chaney has taken up with a gang of marauders.

The story of True Grit has been filmed before. John Wayne won an Oscar for his performance as Cogburn in the 1969 version. The new movie by the Coen brothers isn’t a remake, but rather a return to the source, Charles Portis’ novel. The players speak like characters from 19th-century literature in language that sounds formal yet apt to 21st-century ears. Even grizzled illiterates have a profound command of metaphor. Why “varnish the truth” when you’re preparing to take the life of a man whose skull is already under the heel of your boot?

As Mattie, young Hailee Steinfeld is at the center of an all-star cast. Her manner of speaking sounds peculiar on film, as she rushes through sentences like a nervous student giving a presentation in class. But this is a Coen brothers movie, and Joel and Ethan must have decided that her cascade of words revealed a girl who could not have been entirely at ease in a world where even adult women were given little scope. Jeff Bridges deserves to follow John Wayne’s trail to the Academy Awards as the one-eyed Cogburn, a drunken lout with a steady gun hand, pitiless but with a heart. Matt Damon is intentionally a bit stiff and ridiculous as LeBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who reckons he can bring Chaney back to the Lone Star State, dead or alive, for killing a state senator. Cogburn and LeBoeuf are squabbling over the same piece of meat—the reward they hope to claim by catching Chaney. Josh Brolin plays Chaney with the eyes-too-close-together vacancy of a degenerate who would just as soon kill a man as say “good morning.”

It’s an odyssey of the Old West, beautifully filmed with many haunting images in a dusty setting carefully crafted from memories of Hollywood’s golden age. However, the Coens don’t spare audiences the sight of what a rifle can do to a body, and the epic is threaded with strands of humor, black and otherwise. As always, they love the genre they have chosen, but are amused by its conventions. “You must pay for everything in this world. Nothing is free but the grace of God,” Mattie declares, setting the moral tone in an opening voice-over. To make Chaney pay for the life he took from her, Mattie must cross from the settled country that passes for civilized into a wild land of almost surreal savagery. “They tell me you are a man of true grit,” she tells Cogburn. By story’s end, she has shown as much grit as anyone.
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