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Review: 'True Grit' resurrects a classic

By Tom Charity, CNN
Jeff Bridges, left, and Matt Damon star in "True Grit," the Coen brothers' remake of the 1969 western with John Wayne.
Jeff Bridges, left, and Matt Damon star in "True Grit," the Coen brothers' remake of the 1969 western with John Wayne.
  • "True Grit" is a remake of the 1969 movie that won John Wayne his only Oscar
  • Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays narrator Mattie Ross
  • In many ways, the Coen brothers' movie is a classical horse opera served straight up

(CNN) -- It's been too long since anyone made a really good western. I guess the last one was "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but few people even got to the end of the title, let alone that stultifyingly beautiful movie. What else comes to mind? The HBO series "Deadwood"? Slim pickings.

The brothers Coen wouldn't seem likely candidates to put this sorry situation to rights. Congenital ironists, their fondness for American crime writers of the 1930s and '40s -- Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, Cain -- hardly disguises a modern, hip, urban sensibility.

It's entirely possible to make a hip, ironic, modern western -- Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," for instance, but "True Grit" isn't anything self-canceling like that. In many ways, it's a classical horse opera served straight up. It's a remake of the 1969 movie that won John Wayne his only Oscar, of course, which may be as straight as you can get.

Joel and Ethan Coen have bypassed Wayne and Glen Campbell and gone back to the source: Charles Portis' delicious novel, which they treat with rather more respect than they lavished on Homer in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Henry Hathaway's earlier version of "True Grit" ransacked Portis for plot and the rudiments of character but turned a blind eye to tone and just about everything else. The Coens make the movie Portis must have pictured in his head. No less than "No Country for Old Men," big chunks of dialogue come ripped straight from the book. The Coens invent little but make Portis' elegant, first-person, once-removed voice their own.

Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is narrator Mattie Ross, a beyond precocious 14-year old who hires one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to bring to justice the hired hand (Josh Brolin) who killed her pa. Cogburn's credentials are his badge and his happy trigger finger, not necessarily in that order.

The Coens introduce Rooster in the outhouse, from which he refuses to budge. He's cantankerous, rambunctious, illiterate and a drunk. Old West. But if he's something of a buffoon, he's also a far cry from the Dude, the easygoing California pothead Bridges played in "The Big Lebowski."

Bridges shows us the warts and the vainglory here, but Rooster remains a serious proposition and exactly what Mattie is looking for: a man who won't stand down for anyone or anything. Except, perhaps for a bottle of whiskey, or a 14-year-old girl of considerable resource and determination.

A distant cousin to the resolute teenager Jennifer Lawrence plays in "Winter's Bone," Mattie is prim and self-righteous, adept at negotiation, and more than capable of standing up to horse traders, undertakers and lawyers. But her knowledge of the wild doesn't reach past raccoon hunting. This trek will be something else again, a journey into hostile territory where death is waiting just around the corner, hanging from a high tree or festering in a deep pit.

They make an odd couple, this naïve, Bible-quoting child and the battle-scarred gunslinger -- with Matt Damon's cocky Texas Ranger adding a third leg to the party, and rubbing both of them the wrong way. Somehow, though, over the course of a disputatious odyssey, the girl impresses these hard-bitten and pragmatic men with something of her idealism.

Adventuresome, full of rough, hard humor, desperation and nobility, "True Grit" is rich in vivid and authentic detail, steeped in the strangeness of a world outside the margins of civilization.

It's a real western, good enough to remind us why this strand of storytelling became a bedrock for the nation and a Hollywood mainstay for half a century or more. Shamefully overlooked in the Golden Globes, "True Grit" is right up there with the best pictures of the year.