When Joel and Ethan Coen (“No County For Old Men’) decided to remake this iconic Western, they turned to the source: Charles Portis’s 1968 novel. Yet comparing Jeff Bridges’ irascible Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne’s is inevitable, since Wayne placed an indelible imprint on the role, winning his only Oscar in 1969 and reprising it in the 1975 sequel. That’s perhaps why the Coens focus on the character of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fearlessly determined 14 year-old Arkansas girl who hires Federal Marshall Cogburn to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the hired hand who killed her father.
When Mattie first hears about boozing, cantankerous, one-eyed Reuben J. (“Rooster”) Cogburn, he’s described to her as “a pitiless man, double tough…fear doesn’t enter into his thinking.” That suits her just fine for this righteous vengeance mission. They’re joined by an earnest Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who wants to capture Chaney and take him back to Texas to stand trial for another murder. As they ride into Chocktaw Nation badlands, the trio must survive perilous skirmishes with outlaw Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) and his gang even before they meet up with Chaney.
Contrary to general opinion, John Wayne was not older than Jeff Bridges when he tackled the part; the Duke was 62, while Bridges is 61 – and fresh off his 2009 Academy Award for “Crazy Heart.” But Hailee Steinfeld propels the action, an amazing feat for the California-based adolescent who sent her audition tape to the Coens. Feisty and intelligent far beyond her years, standing straight and tall with her long brown air in braids, she reminds one of Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” – and that’s intentional.
Credit cinematographer Roger Deakins for sprawling southwestern vistas but the wry, formally archaic dialogue, while it parallels the text, strikes a discordant note, along with Bridges’ incessant mumbling while grotesque supporting characters cavort for laughs.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “True Grit” shoots straight with a slick, surreal 8, proving, as Mattie says, “The wicked flee when none pursueth.”