Silver Screen: True Grit ****1/2

Silver Screen: True Grit  ****1/2
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Silver Screen: True Grit ****1/2
Bryan Miller

The combination of the Coen brothers adapting a classic novel to make a Western starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is such an obvious slam dunk, it almost promises to be disappointing. The bar is set high, and potential letdown looms. Yet so talented are the Coens that they still manage to exceed expectations, like a couple of magicians who explain every step of an illusion but still manage to dazzle you with it anyway.

The Coens' True Grit isn't so much a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1969 classic as it is another, slightly more faithful adaptation of the source material, Charles Portis's novel of the same name. The Coens' take on the material is a little less jaunty, and though it's often very funny, the humor is, unsurprisingly, darker and more hard-edged.

Jeff Bridges takes up the role made famous by John Wayne, stepping into the boots of surly old U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed manhunter increasingly given to drink and debauchery. He's hired by a flinty, self-possessed teenage girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), to track down the nefarious Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who shot her father. But the prim and fearless Mattie does everything on her own terms, including supervising the search: She insists on tagging along with the wily Western hero as he enters lawless Indian country in search of the murderous vagabond. Cogburn and Ross are aided, much to the older man's chagrin, by the verbose, self-satisfied Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Damon), who's tracking Chaney for another murder.

The Coen brothers have incorporated Western themes into their films since the beginning of their collaborative career; their debut Blood Simple mashed up its noirish plot with a dusty Texas saloon setting, and the sublime stoner masterpiece The Big Lebowski was narrated by a Sasparilla-drinking cowboy (it even opens with a shot of a rolling tumbleweed drifting, incongruously, toward the California surf). They edged even further into the genre in the Oscar-winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, a kind of modern neo-Western, but that was in many ways a kind of lament for the demise of the moral clarity and honor code of the American frontier (and also, perhaps, a suggestion that such a thing never really existed).

But True Grit is unabashedly a genre picture, and not the kind of meta-commentary/Western-about-the-end-of-Westerns like Clint Eastwood's great Unforgiven. In fact, it's their least ironic, most straightforward film, and their sneering and smirking, hilarious and brilliant though it often is, is almost entirely absent here.

That doesn't mean the brainy brothers have abandoned their sardonic tone altogether-- the black-humored, philosophical-prankster attitude is still there in several vintage Coen scenes. It's most notable early on when Mattie, freshly arrived in town, happens upon the hanging of three men. Their speeches of contrition, or lack thereof, strike a darkly hilarious tone punctuated by their brutal execution.

The Coens' aptitude for rapid-fire banter is perfectly served in one of the film's strongest scenes, which is in both the Portis novel and the original film. Fourteen-year-old Mattie enters into some literal horse-trading with a man (played by Dakin Matthews here and Strother Martin in the original) who sold her late father some ponies. The old man initially condescends to the young girl who, armed with a quicker wit and full faith in her never-seen lawyer, dispatches the codger in a flurry of pointedly eloquent rejoinders. It's a marvel of wry, elevated language that predates the almost Shakespearean banter of Deadwood by a half century or so, and young Steinfeld delivers the twisting, precise lines with deadly seriousness.

Steinfeld is in many ways True Grit's ace in the hole. The relative newcomer turns in an astonishing performance, managing to more than keep up with costars Damon and Bridges, two of the best actors alive. The interactions between the three would be more than enough to make for an exceptional movie, even without the powerful imagery conjured up by the Coens and their longtime collaborator, cinematographer Roger Deakins. True Grit stands with the best of the Coens' films, which is about as high a compliment as can be paid.