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True Grit

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True Grit
The Dude usurps The Duke in this inspired remake of 1969 Western True Grit. Jeff Bridges's portrayal of drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn is not a resurrection of the John Wayne persona but a role he makes his own. And though the script is faithful to Charles Portis's book, the Coen brothers stamp it with their own brand of black humour. They treat the idea of a 14-year-old girl on a bloody revenge mission as not just gosh-darned cute, but disturbing as well. It's slightly unfair to compare the two films (each a product of its time), but this is definitely grittier and wittier.

The casting of an actual 14-year-old to play Mattie (as opposed to Kim Darby who was 21) ensures the tougher scenes have a bigger impact. Hailee Steinfeld (receiving one of ten Oscar nods for the film) is every bit as formidable as Darby, but with the jarring bloom of innocence. She marches into a rough, dustbowl town set on hiring Rooster Cogburn to nab her father's killer. She gives up her rent money and spends the night in an undertaker's storeroom, then haggles for a horse and even breaks it in to join him for the ride. Mattie means business. Alas, Cogburn is as blasé as The Big Lebowski (the Coens' defining role for Bridges) except he's older and grumpier.

Mattie first approaches Cogburn while he's sat in an outhouse and only his bowels are moved. He is occupied with that business and accusations of misconduct brought against him in court where he struggles to recall how many men he has killed and why the hell it matters. Still, there is a vague glimmer of humanity in his eye (the other, patched over) when Mattie accosts him again. And again. Though Cogburn's behaviour is brash, Bridges has the gift of subtlety to immortalise the moment (unlike Wayne who traded on his iconic stature) when he finally accepts the job then quietly watches as Mattie defies him once more, riding through rapids to flank him.

Cogburn's grim amusement is our own, but seeing men shot, killed and hanged through a young girl's eyes is equally haunting. Matt Damon provides more obvious comedy relief as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. He has his own score to settle with the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and his gang, which includes a truly sinister Barry Pepper (as Lucky Ned Pepper). Damon is tasselled and his hair teased to look like a Dude Ranch entertainer so that even Mattie can't take him seriously when he waffles on about the Ranger's code. He threatens to bungle the chase, even biting through his own tongue during a shootout, then much to Cogburn's chagrin, keeps talking.

Thankfully, the dialogue zings with period flourish and point-blank delivery. Much is lifted from the book, but the Coens use it with whimsical effect (echoing Fargo and No Country For Old Men). Bridges mumbles with great musicality and faint expression, at one point giving Mattie an inventory of everything lost in the venture: "We have barked and the birds have flown. Gone, gone, gone. Lucky Ned and his cohort, gone. Your $50, gone. The whiskey, seized in evidence..." What isn't so neatly addressed is the spiritual loss for Mattie, her innocence brutally snatched amid the violence. The Coens only mitigate the horror using ethereal imagery to turn her story into a dark fairytale. But perhaps it's the resistance to introspection that really defines 'true grit'.


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