The mighty brothers Coen take their masterful talents to the Old West for a bravura remake of True Grit. Jeff Bridges wears the eye patch in place of John Wayne as the iconic U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn—and it's one of the most beautiful bits of casting you will witness in modern cinema.
As good as Bridges is in the role—delivering every line with a weary yet somehow endearing mumble—he is matched every step of the way by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, my pick for the year's best supporting actress. As Mattie Ross, the whip-smart young woman who hires Cogburn to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father, Steinfeld is nothing short of miraculous.
When Rooster and Mattie set out on the trail of Chaney, they are joined by Texas lawman LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). While the film certainly is no comedy, Damon gets a lot of laughs as the tagalong who talks too much and leaves the party more than once due to Cogburn's stubbornness and Mattie's mental superiority. LeBoeuf's verbal rivalry with Cogburn is made all the more hilarious by Mattie's tendency to be the only one in camp who acts like an adult.
As good as the Coens are at presenting a distinctive Wild West, this story wouldn't work if the central performances from Bridges and Steinfeld didn't gel. Luckily, they exchange lines like two people who have shared the screen 100 times before.
Some of the film's greater passages occur early on, as the two are getting to know each other. Watching Bridges' Cogburn react with quizzical stares as Mattie continuously outsmarts him is a testament to how giving and wonderful of an actor Bridges truly is. You sense that the man knows he is witnessing lighting in a bottle with Steinfeld—and he's loving it.
Chaney shows up late in the film, and Brolin plays him as a comically sad, always-complaining simpleton. He's the sort of character who has you laughing hard at one moment and terrified the next. Brolin makes Chaney's apparent sadness almost charming, making it all the more shocking when he shifts into bad-guy mode.
Barry Pepper is also menacing as Lucky Ned Pepper, the frothing-at-the-mouth leader of a band of outlaws.
The Coens clearly relish the opportunity to play in a new sandbox. Their take on the Charles Portis novel is dark, laced with gnarly tree branches, bad teeth, heavy whiskey-drinking and lots of killing. Yet the whole deal is oddly beautiful, thanks to the work of their performers, tremendous camerawork by old standby Roger Deakins and a stirring soundtrack from the criminally underrated Carter Burwell.
The film is full of trademark Coen-brother eccentric touches. There's a wonderful interlude when Rooster and Mattie cross paths with the Bear Man (Ed Corbin), a wandering dental technician who is more than a little dramatic as he talks about the trade he just made for a dead body. The public hanging of three men plays out in a way that could've only been directed by the Coens.
So, yeah, the Coen brothers have done it again, taking over another genre and making it their own. I've said it before, and I will say it again: I have never met a Coen brothers film that I didn't like. True Grit is another milestone in their amazing careers, as well as a showcase for an up-and-coming star and some of the industry's finest actors.
It's almost insulting to call it a remake. While John Wayne's portrayal of Cogburn may've netted him an Oscar, Bridges is the real Rooster—and Steinfeld is the real deal.