Jeff “The Dude” Bridges (with newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) switches from white Russians to whatever’s in the whiskey jug in the Coen Brothers’ latest, True Grit, adapted from the novel by Charles Portis.
The story has been a film before (in 1969, starring John Wayne), and before that a Charles Portis novel, and before that a serialized story in the Saturday Evening Post, and before that, maybe, some resilient piece of early American folklore. So the challenge for True Grit is to both honor and renew an old tale. This isn’t a problem for filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote and directed it together, enlisting newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the girl, Jeff Bridges as the marshal, Josh Brolin, briefly, as the killer and Matt Damon as the ranger. Also, Roger Deakins’ cinematography supplies the essential atmospherics of wintry moods and landscapes.
Today any movie western will seem like a nostalgic genre exercise, especially an ostensible remake of one that already reeked of anachronism when it was Oscar bait for John Wayne in the late 1960s. But the Coens have gotten away with nostalgic genre exercises, usually by counteracting sentimentalism with a cool and ironic breed of anthropology, as they do here. It’s not exactly a remake: they’ve gone back to True Grit’s first recorded source, Portis’ fiction.
It seems safe to assume that the Coens were attracted to Portis’ mordant humor and weird locutions, and that their actors were too. This isn’t just Jeff Bridges imitating John Wayne. For one thing, he wears the patch on the opposite eye. For another, it sounds more like he’s imitating Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Whereas the talkative, tightly braided Steinfeld, avoiding contractions and uttering colloquialisms always as if they’re in quotation marks, sounds more like the android Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” “Sleep well, Little Blackie,” she tells her horse, robotically. “I have a notion that tomorrow we will reach our object. We are ‘hot on the trail.’” It’s a confounding, Coen-typical performance, just irksome enough to somehow charm. And of course Damon has a healthy share of too-earnest talk as well, feeding his occasional need to insist that he’s capable of playing an oaf. When Damon tries too hard, so does the movie.
Otherwise it’s great fun—a crafty deadpan caricature of archetypal rough justice, and accordingly true enough.