Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'True Grit' review: Coen brothers' reboot is a wonderfully entertaining, beautiful Western

Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld star in Joel and Ethan Coen's 'True Grit.'
Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld star in Joel and Ethan Coen's 'True Grit.'
Joel and Ethan Coen are rare cinematic originals, which masks how carefully distilled their films are. No matter the source — gangster noirs, cultural footnotes, Homeric journeys, Looney Tunes — they bolster new ideas with classic structure, and make the seasoned seem fresh.

Their latest, "True Grit," adapted religiously from Charles Portis' 1968 pulp novel, is a wonderfully entertaining, beautiful Western drama that lets the quirks of the genre gallop freely as it keeps a tight rein throughout.

John Wayne won an Oscar for his own version of quirky in the 1969 original, as U.S. Marshal Reuben (Rooster) Cogburn, a drunkard who called a mangy cat his relative and wore an eyepatch.

In the Coens' fable of 1870s retribution, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is not a sideshow but a serious man. When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) hires him to find her father's killer, Cogburn heads with her from Arkansas to the Indian territory that would one day be Oklahoma. For part of the way, a preening Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon) rides with them.

Their adventure brings them to Chaney (Josh Brolin) and a scarred thug named Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). The story builds slowly and is filled with character, and the Coens and their longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, make every run-in and frontier snowfall feel haunted and poetic.

Damon is sly and Steinfeld is sturdy, yet the big question for most viewers — does Bridges sit tall in Wayne's saddle? — is really like comparing a rifle and a six-shooter.

The onetime Big Lebowski is always a delight and lets Rooster reveal himself to be (a bit) softer at first, until he slowly pulls out the toughness. (Wayne, the same age in the first movie as Bridges is now, did it flinty, then tender.)

Bridges has moments in which Rooster's croaky monologues are as full of nuance as the one eye he's left to work with. His sole peeper darts around, closes in exhaustion and earns our affection, while "True Grit" proves to be as funny and heroic as any other legend, and tells an expert tale to boot. 

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