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On Movies: 'True Grit' rides again, better than ever

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2010 - The wonderful new Coen brothers movie "True Grit" has been called a remake, but it's not really that. It's rather a new adaptation of a book that happens to have been made into a movie once before. The many longtime fans of the book, by Charles Portis, include Joel and Ethan Coen.

The 1969 version featured John Wayne in an Oscar-winning performance as grizzled marshal Rooster Cogburn, hired by a 14-year-old girl to track down the man who killed her father. Wayne dominated the movie. In the new "True Grit," Cogburn is played by Jeff Bridges; and he is memorable as the tough, independent-minded old coot. Bridges sets the mood for the entire film in a hilarious early courtroom scene in which he reveals himself as a lawman more interested in justice than in the law, and with a sometimes quirky definition of justice.

But the real star of the movie is newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who plays 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a simultaneously naive and shrewd avenging angel who pays and then nags Cogburn to go into Indian Territory and find killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She wants Chaney brought back to Arkansas to be hanged. If she doesn't shoot him first.

Also on the trail of Chaney is a slow-witted, preening Texas ranger (Matt Damon) with the high-falutin' name of LaBoeuf. He has been paid a large sum to bring Cheney back to Texas to be tried for the killing of an important man, but Mattie will hear none of that -- her father's death must be revenged in Arkansas, where his killing took place.

Mattie wakes up one morning to discover the two lawmen are gone. She refuses to be left behind in Fort Smith while the men go after Chaney, and she rides her horse across the wide, deep, and murky Arkansas river to catch up to Cogburn and LaBoeuf. It soon becomes clear to them and to us that it would be unwise to bet against Mattie Ross having her way in anything. The three, together and, at times, separate, proceed to have a series of adventures, some of them involving gunplay, as they ride through the mostly deserted West, looking for Chaney.

A wandering search through lawless territory and the thirst for revenge are classic themes of westerns, and "True Grit" is a classic western, with clear heroes and villains and a traditional narrative arc. The weirdness Coen-brothers fans expect from their films can be seen in the minor characters -- a horse trader bamboozled by the irresistible force of Mattie's will, a skeletal, poker-faced undertaker, a prairie "doctor" who protects himself from the howling winds by wearing the entire pelt of a bear, including the head and feet.

But strange minor characters and bizarre sidekicks are a staple of traditional westerns, and those looking for hidden ironies and genre deconstruction in "True Grit" will look in vain. One thing the Coens have proven from the beginning, with their 1984 film noir debut "Blood Simple," is that they love "movies," not just films. "True Grit" is a movie, which doesn't necessarily disqualify it from being a film as well.

By the time we get to the shootout made famous by the John Wayne film, with Rooster Cogburn riding against a small phalanx of bad guys and shouting "Fill your hands!" - Wayne's ride is on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKThgLq21Rc -- we realize that the Coen brothers, whose last movie was an existential meditation on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle ("A Simple Man), have, once again, gone in an unexpected direction. They've given us an hour and 50 minutes of pure entertainment, with an irresistible heroine who, with a little help, is victorious over the forces of evil.

The movie begins and ends with narration by Mattie Ross, and it is clear what we see is her story. Mattie speaks, flowingly, a language that combines American rural slang with a schoolmarm's or a preacher's stilted choice of words. True to the book, the characters mostly speak the same way. Well, of course they do -- they are speaking through Mattie, so they speak the way Mattie would speak. The heightened language lends the story a poetic, mythic quality, as if Mattie were a figure out of Greek tragedy, spurred on by a fury in the blood to revenge the death of her father, the king.

Opens Wednesday Dec. 22

Harper Barnes,; the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon. 

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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