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How the West Is Won

The Coen brothers take their tongues out of their cheeks for True Grit.

Boldly reanimating the comic Western that secured John Wayne his Oscar 41 years ago, the Coen brothers' True Grit is well-wrought, if overly talkative, and seriously ambitious. Opening with a strategically abbreviated Old Testament proverb ("The wicked flee when none pursueth"), the film returns the Coens to the all-American sagebrush and gun-smoke landscape that has best nourished their wise-guy sensibility (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men). This perverse buddy tale, in which an implacable 14-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) bonds in vengeance with the one-eyed, one-note bounty-hunting windbag marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role), is one of the brothers' least facetious movies — despite a prolonged meet-cute as little Mattie stubbornly attempts to roust Rooster from a rustic privy to secure his aid in tracking her father's murderer into Indian territory.

The Coens are still themselves. As one colleague remarked — unprompted — upon leaving the screening where True Grit was previewed for New York critics, "They always do something to make you hate them." (In my case, the moment happened early on with a gag based on the hanging of a — dare one say — Native American.) But True Grit's most serious lapse is more aesthetic than ethical — and less Hollywood than film-school. The brothers repeatedly invoke a superior movie — not the 1969 True Grit, which is, Wayne's built-in mythic valence aside, in every way inferior to the Coen version, but the 1955 classic Night of the Hunter, whose recurring hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," is repeated throughout the new True Grit.

For the most part, the Coens' is a highly enjoyable yarn, stocked with pungent bushwa and a full panoply of frontier bozos. However hammily he rasps and fumfers, the Dude's Rooster is more nuanced and less overbearing than the Duke's, as well as more original. (Wayne lifted many of his gravel-voiced mannerisms from Hollywood's Depression-era pug-ugly Wallace Beery.) Never less than disciplined, Matt Damon is a strong foil to Bridges's rumbling, stumbling, grumbling, grizzled scapegrace, as the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (a part originally played — for the kids! — by singer Glen Campbell), who joins the magical mystery tour.

The windbag marshal and the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger: Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.
Paramount Pictures
The windbag marshal and the upstanding, mildly pompous Texas Ranger: Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

Once constituted, the posse makes for a mouthy, self-aggrandizing trio, although it's relentless little Mattie who serves as the movie's key gimmick; even feistier than the much-lauded heroine of Winter's Bone, she's self-possessed, schoolmarmish, full of sass and downright uncanny. "I am puzzled — what is she doing here?" LaBoeuf more than once wonders in the oddly formal, faux-Mark Twain diction that characterizes the dialogue.

The Coens manage to render Choctaw country uncanny as well — the spectacle of a corpse dangling from a tree and a bear seemingly bestride a horse are portents worthy of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The brothers have always been good on scary outlaws (in this case, Josh Brolin) and, with its sod houses and bleak weather, their West is as inhospitable as it should be.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Wayne's clownish performance, True Grit I was the comfortingly "normal" middle-American Western of its season, opening at Radio City in time for July Fourth, a week after The Wild Bunch splattered screens with war-movie carnage and a few months before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid insouciantly trashed the genre's remaining moral pretensions. The Coens' True Grit is considerably more faithful to Charles Portis's novel than was the 1969 movie and consequently far darker.

For years now, just about every credible Western — Unforgiven, Dead Man, Wild Bill (Walter Hill's near-forgotten vehicle for a far more ferocious Bridges), The Assassination of Jesse James — has been an oddity, if not a walking corpse. True Grit belongs with these ghost stories and, in suggesting that we're all haunted by things we can't understand, it carries its own Coen-trademarked mystery. Whereas the full Biblical proverb that introduces True Grit ends with praise for the bravery of the righteous, the Coens cut directly to the chase, suggesting only the power of a guilty conscience.

 
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