Andy Bockelman: ‘True Grit’: A dusty dirty, dominant Western remake

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

'True Grit'

3.5 out of 4 stars

110 minutes

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Brolin

When you wear an eye patch, your capacity for successfully using a firearm is questionable at best. At least, that’s the case for people who don’t have something called “True Grit.”

When her father is shot and killed in 1878 Arkansas as a result of a trivial argument, 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) has to step up and handle her family’s affairs, namely tracking down the culprit who left her mother a widow.

In need of a tracker, the plucky young lady wants the best the U.S. Marshals have to offer. But, hiring the meanest of the bunch may be a better move, leading her to enlist the services of Deputy Marshal Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a callous, craggy old drunkard who, despite his reputation for dubious tactics on the job, always gets his man.

But, Mattie and the marshal aren’t the only ones on the lookout for the murderer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), as a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) is also hunting for the fugitive.

Still, even with the out-of-state lawman’s added expertise, the duo turned trio may have their work cut out for them, as Chaney takes up with a band of ruffians that are more than a match for an old man like Cogburn.

Trying to step into the boots of an actor like John Wayne is a mighty big undertaking, and to do it badly would be an act tantamount to national treason.

Thankfully, Bridges doesn’t attempt to do an imitation of The Duke, creating his own version of Cogburn, akin to a descendant who’s less outwardly noble and speaks with an unintelligible rasp and drowns himself both in whiskey and the haunting memories of a life that has resulted in nothing but misery.

Plus, he wears his patch on the right eye instead of the left. How’s that for a difference?

Damon looks and sounds drastically unlike we’ve ever seen him as La Boeuf — pronounced “La Beef” — a long-winded, short-tempered Civil War veteran whose high-falutin’ attitude about his considerable training is as pronounced as his Texas accent and his horrid mutton chops.

Steinfeld makes an outstanding film debut, a performance made all the better by the fact that she actually is 14, unlike original actress Kim Darby, who was well into adulthood when she took on the part of Mattie.

Steinfeld also displays more of a tenacity befitting a 19th century girl of the plains as the fast-talking teenager who refuses to be patronized to by anyone of any age, speaking with the confidence, fastidiousness and assurance of a dyed in the wool schoolmarm, whether she’s bartering with the local shopkeep (Dakin Matthews) or deriding the numerous bandits who make denigrating comments about her.

Not the least of which is Chaney, described as “trash” by Mattie and for good reason, as he’s a craven and vile sort who hides out with the likes of “Lucky” Ned Pepper, a much tougher and determined plunderer portrayed by Barry Pepper, who looks remarkably like a young Robert Duvall.

Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen go the extra mile in their second attempt at a remake and the results are much more satisfying than 2004’s “The Ladykillers.”

Not only is the filmmaking sibling team able to restore many of the 1969 Western’s best scenes, including an outstanding recreation of Rooster’s climactic showdown with Pepper and his gang — “I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man!” — but they add an element of authenticity in location and acting that was sorely lacking in the original.

It’s rare to see a remake that improves upon its namesake, but the staginess aspect of so many older Westerns is toned down for a less sentimental story that is still able to invoke emotion from its audience, especially in terms of humor, with Maddie first exchanging words with Rooster through the door of an outhouse.

While Bridges can’t make us forget the iconic status of John Wayne — who earned his only Oscar for the role of Marshal Cogburn — the Coen brothers have the good sense to shift focus to Steinfeld as the girl he affectionately refers to as “Little Sister” for an overall stronger tale of female empowerment that functions fine for contemporary viewers who want to see a young woman as more than a run-of-the-mill ingénue.

Narration by an older Mattie (Elizabeth Marvel) also makes the story feel more complete at both beginning and end.

Though “True Grit” cannot surmount the impossible standard set by “No Country for Old Men” for Westerns made in the 21st century, the Coens come as close as they can to getting another dose of lightning in a bottle.

Cogburn may not be able to shoot every piece of hardtack that he tosses up to display his skills with a pistol, but the men overseeing his actions are dead-on in every shot they take.

Of course, they were probably sober at the time.

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