You might need subtitles to understand Jeff Bridges’ mutterings in “True Grit,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel.
Reprising John Wayne’s 1969 role as irascible U.S. marshal “Rooster” Cogburn, Bridges does not try to fill The Duke’s boots, his whiskey-voiced grumblings a far cry from Wayne’s unmistakable drawl. A character actor rather than a Hollywood monument, Bridges so thoroughly cloaks himself in Cogburn’s darkness that he threatens to disappear altogether.
The same could never be said of Wayne, but the point of “True Grit” is not to invite comparisons. The Coens aspire to carve out their own legend, and on the strength of their storytelling and dialogue — along with blazing performances from Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld — they succeed.
Steinfeld plays precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross, hungry for justice after cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) guns down her father. Giving chase, she enlists the aid of Cogburn, a notoriously unforgiving lawman, to guide her through the Indian territories and capture Chaney, ostensibly to be hanged.
Joining them is LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a dapper Texas ranger cut from far cleaner cloth than Cogburn.
The two play off each other wonderfully — Damon pursues his mission with the temperament of a romantic philosopher, wistfully pursuing the killer who got away. Cogburn has about as much use for his fancy chatter as he has for hygiene.
The Coens must have savored the ironies of Portis’ novel, with its hapless villain, its dangerously besotted anti-hero and, outsmarting them at every turn, Steinfeld’s unwavering teenage heroine.
Those probing the brothers’ latest offering for some deeper meaning, perhaps something in the vein of the poetic nihilism of 2007’s “No Country for Old Men,” may be disappointed. It is neither a deconstruction nor a reinvention of the Western, but rather a worthy addition to a venerable genre.
As such, it is a classic road movie set in the roadless countryside, as much a black comedy as a sly meditation on violence. The Coens treat the mayhem with gravity — the gunplay is never presented as sport, but as the escalation of tensions to the point at which men break, wagering their lives in defense of their honor.
There at the center is Bridges, who, as Cogburn, drops his guard just enough to let us appreciate his humor and heart, effectively masked behind a cold eye and a guttural growl. He is Mattie’s savior, and she his redemption. Together, they make the oddest of odd couples, their growing trust in each other as sweet as the cause of their union is sour.
True Grit ★★★½
Starring Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes