Those who saw John Wayne's Oscar-winning, scenery-chewing turn as "Rooster" Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 1969 adaptation of True Grit might have a hard time shaking that off when it comes to appreciating Jeff Bridges in the same part. That is, until they realize that the Wayne movies Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Charles Portis's perfect little novel most evoke are John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Bumptious though it might be, Bridges's performance touches on the same depths and complexities that Wayne did in those masterpieces. And the Coen brothers, like Ford, confront and clarify the paradoxes their film raises.
Following NoCountry for Old Men (2008) and A Serious Man (2009), True Grit also marks another stage in the Coens' maturation, as they progress from cynicism to tragedy, from the sadism of smart-asses to the gravity of the Old Testament. Their gravity is now worthy of that most venerable and profound of American genres, the Western.
The good news is, they haven't lost their sense of humor in the process. Theirs is a raffish version of Reuben Cogburn, a US marshal assigned to the anarchic 1870s Oklahoma Indian Territory and the instrument of the wrath of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). Bridges's Rooster is at first more Dude than Duke. Unwashed, buffoonish, and besotted with confiscated whiskey, he seems an unlikely upholder of the law — especially the flinty Calvinist version espoused by Mattie.
In Mattie's opinion, however, Cogburn has "true grit." Not so much toughness, or resolve, or integrity, but the kind of macho ruthlessness that gets its way regardless of legal technicalities or the consequences. That's what she needs to bring to justice Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the feckless trash who in a moment of drunken rage and petty larceny gunned down her father. And as Cogburn himself notes with growing admiration, it's a quality that Mattie shares. She's an adolescent, starchier version of Frances McDormand's sheriff in Fargo (1996), though with a lot more at stake.
Complicating matters is the arrival of the vain, churlish Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who's been tracking Chaney to collect a bounty on him for a previous murder. Whatever grit LaBoeuf might have remains to be seen. Together they make an uneasy trio as they comb the lawless Indian Territory (shot with haunting majesty by Richard Deakins) in search of Chaney, who's taken refuge with an outlaw band slightly less ineffectual than the one in The Ladykillers. It's a fairly laid-back mission, interrupted by brief violence and the kind of macabre absurdities that remain the Coens' stock in trade. Neither does the outcome appear much in doubt. It doesn't seem a fair match: Mattie, played with authority by Steinfeld, could likely handle Chaney and his fellow desperadoes herself.
She, after all, has the power of civilization and righteousness behind her — she's the kind of woman who, as in Westerns from Stagecoach (1939) to McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) to Unforgiven (1992), manipulates the aggressiveness of her "protectors" and turns it against bad guys who in fact merely embody the good guys' own worst impulses. The scene in which Cogburn bears the stricken Mattie to safety may pack the same emotional wallop as the climax of The Searchers. But the tragic dénouement is more like that in Liberty Valance. It's summed up in the final shot of a moneyed spinster, still unbent and undaunted, standing next to a gravestone.
True Grit | Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen | Written by Joel and Ethan Coen based on the novel by Charles Portis | with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, and Barry Pepper | Paramount Studios | 114 minutes