Back in the Saddle

The Coen brothers revisit the Old West

John Wayne won only one Academy Award. It was for 1969's True Grit, and it was one of those we-better-honor-the-guy-now-before-he-dies Oscars the Academy hands out every once in a while to aging actors. He was in his early sixties at the time, but he had just beaten cancer and looked older. That made him an ideal choice for the lead role of Rooster Cogburn, a drunken, grizzled U.S. marshal who reluctantly agrees to help a young girl track down the man who killed her father.

In Joel and Ethan Coen's remake, 61-year-old Jeff Bridges is roughly the same age Wayne was when he strapped on Rooster's boots in the original movie. But Bridges — hot off his own first Oscar win for Crazy Heart and working with the Coens for the first time since they made him a cult star with 1998's The Big Lebowski — wears Rooster's wear-and-tear better. And the Coen brothers bring more visual flair (with more than a little help from longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins) to a story that was blandly told the first time around.

The new True Grit is better than the old one, and Bridges settles more comfortably into Rooster's dusty duds than Wayne did. But this redo by two of the world's most gifted filmmakers seems a bit detached. It's a good movie, not a great one. The Coens don't change much of the story: Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) kills 14-year-old Mattie Ross' (Hailee Steinfeld) dad for no other reason than he's a mean bastard. A vengeful Mattie tracks down the fat, drunk, and one-eyed Rooster, and hires him to bring Chaney to justice.

The relationship between them is rocky. He wants nothing to do with her; she corrects his spelling. He's stubborn; she's even more stubborn. He's a mumbling grump; she's stern, serious, and has one thing on her mind. Despite her young age, Mattie is savvier than most of the adults she comes across, beating them down with her smarts (check out her scene with a horse trader). Rooster beats them down the Old West way: with a gun. Their scenes together form True Grit's core. The Coens merge their two worlds similar to the way they brought together different perspectives of the west in No Country for Old Men, their last western.

By the time Rooster fires his gun for the first time, they've picked up LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger also looking for Chaney. Then their "grand adventure" saddles up, and the Coens' quick, witty dialogue follows suit. The three stars banter, spar, and trade barbs as they mosey down the trail in pursuit of Chaney. But the pace here is more deliberate — scenes don't jump off the screen like they do in the Coens' best movies.

Bridges and newcomer Steinfeld are both terrific, injecting the genre with more weight than it's used to. Bridges' performance is hammy at times, but it's balanced by Rooster's occasional reckless ruthlessness. Rooster knows the land, and he knows his job. And he's good at it ... when he's sober. He's the perfect foil to Mattie, who drives True Grit's narrative with her single-minded determination. She stands up to Rooster and LaBoeuf (and Steinfeld stands up to Bridges and Damon), stealing every scene she's in.

Still, the Coens shoot the movie from a winking distance — like they're never quite sure if they're toying with or embracing the western's conventions. Truthfully, it's probably somewhere in between. But their typical disconnection here doesn't quite fit a genre that's been so historically earnest.Send feedback to [email protected].

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