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At the risk of inciting the undoubtedly still-rabid John Wayne fan base among Arkansas Times readers, I'm going to say the Duke didn't deserve the Oscar for "True Grit." It was a career prize, a reward for 40 years of dutiful stardom in Hollywood, concentrated on a role that required him to inhabit a paunchy, mean drunk, which wasn't much of a stretch at that point in his career.
To paraphrase Chuck D, forget John Wayne. His not-terrible take on Rooster Cogburn has nonetheless blighted the legacy of "True Grit" for the last 40 years. Because Wayne starred in the film and subsequently won the Oscar, his name has become synonymous with "True Grit."
The Duke doesn't die easy, but the Coen brothers' new adaptation — don't call it a reboot — goes a long way towards providing order in the universe. Which may not mean that "True Grit" author and Little Rock native Charles Portis will receive his due (bestseller list, international acclaim, "Oprah" bookclub, required reading for every girl and boy, etc.), but at least the Christmas season movie-going hordes will have a truer sense of his vision.
The Coens focus the story where it belongs, squarely on Portis' protagonist Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl from Dardanelle with an Old Testament sense of justice, a preternatural sense of self-assurance and the bullying vocabulary of a career litigator. She's one of American fiction's greatest creations, and the Coens and newcomer Steinfeld do right by her.
Which means, in part, not letting go of the character's innocence. For the most part, Steinfeld plays up Mattie's whip-smart demeanor. Her delivery is rapid-fire and her gait stiff with obvious purpose. But the Coens never let us forget that she's still a child. A shot of her packing newspaper into the crown of her dead father's hat to keep it from swallowing her head was one of the film's most affecting.
The plot, in case you've forgotten, is fairly conventional. Out to "avenge her father's blood," Mattie travels to Fort Smith in search of her father's killer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Told that he's fled into the Indian Territory, she hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a "pitiless man, double tough," to track him. And together, she, Cogburn and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger tracking Chaney for a murder committed in Texas, set off into the wilderness (captured with typical beauty by cinematographer Roger Deakins).
But as fans of the novel know, "True Grit" is a character-driven story. Moreover, it's a story filled with characters who brandish language like a weapon. The Coens have a rich track record with great talkers, characters who through bluster or quirk of phrase tell us everything we need to know about them (see Nicholas Cage's Hi McDunnough and Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson for starters). Here, they deliver some of their most memorable dialogue yet, largely because they stay faithful to Portis' mordant sense of humor.
The actors are almost uniformly excellent. Perhaps there would've been too much screwy symmetry between Wayne and Bridges had the latter not won the Oscar last year. Because Bridge's gruff, marble-mouthed take on morally bereft Rooster Cogburn is the stuff of prizes. Ditto for Matt Damon, perfectly cast here as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger playing at being a cowboy. Barry Pepper, with perhaps the most frightening teeth in cinematic history, is great as usual as Lucky Ned Pepper. The film's only false note is Josh Brolin's unevolved-man take on Tom Chaney. He may be a simpleton in the original story, but we never figured him for a Neanderthal.
As usual, the Coens don't blanch at blood or other grim scenes, but despite the occasional dark turns, "True Grit" is decidedly family-friendly. But without the gooey-ness that usually accompanies such fare. Go see it.
— Lindsey Millar