True Grit

No working American filmmakers are as prolific, diverse and consistently impressive as the inimitable Coen Brothers, who have maintained the moviemaking Midas touch for almost three decades and continue to surprise.

The Coens’ add hard-boiled classical western to their ever-expanding oeuvre with True Grit, adapting a novel by Charles Portis which was also the source of director Henry Hathaway’s spirited 1969 John Wayne movie of the same name.

Wayne’s character Rooster Cogburn – a law enforcing whiskey guzzling sharp shooter chockfull of the titular form of Grit – is this time inhabited by Jeff Bridges, whose screen-pounding frame-guzzling version of a drunkard rivals anybody’s  in Hollywood.

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The last time Bridges played a chain smoking alcoholic approaching the hill (though not quite over it) he picked up an Oscar for his troubles (last year for Crazy Heart) and is in the running to do so again.

Young up-and-comer Hailee Steinfeld plays the almost unbelievably ahead of her age Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl whose quest to avenge her father’s death propels the story. She’s got business nous, negotiation skills and attitude to spare; dare to pull the wool over her eyes and she’ll rip it off and sell it back to you at thrice the price.

Mattie recruits Rooster to accompany her on a long outback trek to capture Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the main what done gawn and keeled her daidy.

Jeff Bridges is a one-eyed revelation: he rolls his performance up, smokes it without a filter and stubs it in your face. It’s crazy heart on a horse with a six shooter and an eye patch and dammit, it works. Steinfeld, also Oscar nominated, is outstanding as the pipsqueak wheeler and dealer and her character is key to making the film widely accessible.

Sadly this new version no longer has Rooster talking tough to a rat and calling Mattie “little sis” but it is in virtually every way a vastly superior film to Hathaway’s and the Duke’s. It lassoes the original film and hurls it out of the park.

True Grit is dark, brooding, wickedly entertaining and showcases another portfolio of beautifully shot images from cinematographer and long-time Coens collaborator Roger Deakins.

Those marvelous Coens are quickly running out of genres to master. If the ghost of John Wayne were to arise and challenge Jeff Bridges to put down his bottle and join him for a good ol’ round of pistols at dawn, there’d be no doubt which drunkard would head back to the saloon victorious.