Joel and Ethan Coen have made blazingly original films for so long now that slipping into imitation can be expected, and probably excused. At least with True Grit they're cribbing from a movie older than most moviegoers today.
When announcing plans to remake the 1969 Western that won John Wayne an Oscar, the Coens insisted their version would hew closer to Charles Portis' novel. What they've produced actually confirms how much the original film respected the author's prose.
As someone who viewed Wayne's version numerous times, I could mouth passages of dialogue along with the actors in this adaptation, too. There are also distracting casting choices in supporting roles, such as a Strother Martin look- and sound-alike as a shifty horse trader, and a jittery outlaw resembling a young Dennis Hopper from the original.
The resemblances are often so stark that questioning the necessity of another True Grit is understandable. But these are the Coens, so they do have a few new tricks up their sleeves.
The most crucial is shifting the perspective of True Grit from blustery lawman Rooster Cogburn — Wayne was never a second fiddle — to Mattie Ross, age 14 and itching for revenge for her father's murder. This True Grit will certainly be remembered for introducing to the screen a bracing new talent named Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie. She transcends Kim Darby's spunkiness with unfailing focus on Mattie's no-nonsense words and deeds.
For the manhunt Mattie hires Rooster, played this time around by Jeff Bridges, possibly the closest to a Wayne-like object of respect in Hollywood today. Both actors use Rooster as an excuse to wonderfully overact; a honey-baked ham replaced by a saltier country ham. Bridges switches eyes with the patch, costumed in Coen shades of dishevelment and croaking his lines like there's a double chaw of tobacco in his mouth, although he's usually rolling a cigarette.
The Coens came up with the remake idea while filming No Country for Old Men, and that film's bleak landscapes and moodiness show up here. Also, a tendency to allow scenes to play out longer than feels comfortable for a cumulative dramatic effect. This isn't a rip-roaring Western adventure; violence occurs in brief spasms spaced far apart, except Rooster's climatic horseback charge, two guns blazing, that practically mimics Wayne's ride shot for shot.
Neither is True Grit as comical as the original could be. Matt Damon provides the closest to comic relief as LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger tagging along and constantly boasting, with Rooster giving him an amusing evil eye. But the Coens and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins aim to keep True Grit in the somber vein that Portis imagined in print, down to an epilogue the original skipped.
The result is a film filled with Coen signatures — telling shot angles and visual non sequiturs like a bear on horseback, or a lynching victim hanging uncommonly high. You never forget who's behind the camera but wonder why for this particular project. True Grit is a very good movie that might be more embraceable if we didn't know who was pulling the trigger.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.