The strangest thing about the new remake of the John Wayne-Henry Hathaway classic “True Grit” is that there’s nothing strange about it at all.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film offers none of its makers’ trademark glibness or weirdness: no human legs in a woodchipper, a la “Fargo”; or cattle guns that can blow a hole in a man’s skull, a la “No Country for Old Men.”
What we get, instead, is a straightforward, plainspoken Western that at times feels as if it might have been made in the 1950s. If it lacks the piquant charm of the Coens’ more offbeat works (“The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or the autobiographical intimacy of last year’s “A Serious Man,” we also shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth: This “True Grit” is as elegantly made as it is beautifully acted.
Jeff Bridges steps into the role that won Wayne an Oscar, the boozing federal marshal Rooster Cogburn, a Civil War veteran hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to chase after Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who murdered her father.
Wayne famously played the part in a broad, showboaty fashion, pausing proudly after every one-liner. Bridges goes the opposite direction: His Cogburn speaks his words in a slurry mumble, and he looks upon the world with a jaundiced irritation; he can’t quite believe he’s allowed this young girl to talk him into such a dangerous assignment.
He also generates a surprising tenderness opposite the very gifted Steinfeld, in her first major role. A scene where Rooster confesses his history of bad marriages to Mattie is one of many in the film that proves both wry and quietly heartbreaking.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Chaney has joined up with a dangerous gang, led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). He’s also wanted in Texas for the murder of a state senator. Enter LaBoeuf (a very funny Matt Damon), the Texas Ranger who tries to hitch his wagon to Mattie and Rooster. The three of them set out together, a decidedly unsteady alliance in increasingly hostile territory.
Working with a number of longtime collaborators, including Carter Burwell who wrote the elegiac, piano-heavy score, and Roger Deakins, who photographed the film, the Coens conjure up a sometimessomber, but always magisterial vision: Watch out for the breathtaking moment when Rooster and Mattie stumble upon a bearded man on horseback in the snow; he’s wearing not just a bearskin to keep him warm, but also the bear’s head over his face.
The Coens (who also wrote the screenplay, based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel) also do something very clever with language, having the characters speak in formal 19th century locutions, with no contractions and plenty of God-fearing references of the Bible. The effort is strange and transporting — the rare contemporary Western that genuinely seems to have one foot in the past.
“True Grit” moves along at such a confident, steady clip that you naturally assume it’s eventually all going to come to a boil. Not exactly. Despite some neatly executed sequences, including one where Rooster tries to kill the two men from a hilltop, “True Grit” never generates a sense of action-movie momentum.
Still, it’s a pleasure to see the Coens, who for so long have avoided the messiness of real emotion in their carefully designed, sometimes-too-jokey movies, finally show their sentimental side.