Coens’ “True Grit” remake finds sharper focus, sharper talent

Steinfeld, Damon and Bridges (from left) are a posse to be reckoned with in "True Grit."

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is very concerned with honor because she believes her family has lost theirs. It died with her father, shot by a murderous scofflaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Mattie means to get that honor back, and a helping of justice with it, and she’ll do that however she can. This 14-year-old is not about to smile and fiddle with her bonnet while the local lawmen sit on their hands. “True grit” may be the descriptor of the bounty hunter Mattie seeks out, but it should be stitched into her saddle. Suffer fools she will not.

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen know their way around determined characters like Mattie. They ought to — they’ve written enough of them. These souls, all very different, share a sense of drive (whether it’s to do good, evil or something in-between): Marge Gunderson, Tom Reagan, Loren Visser, Jeff Lebowski, who found a urine-stained rug reason enough to put down the joint and find the hero within. This affinity makes the Coen brothers a crackerjack choice to to remake “True Grit”; obviously anyone who’d remake a classic Western starring John Wayne needs to be familiar with intestinal fortitude. As they are wont to do, the Coens even go one better, swapping Robert Duvall for Matt Damon and The Duke for — loins, gird thyselves — The Dude. Wayne fans may cry heresy; those who open their minds a touch, though, will find these sly directors know precisely what they’re doing. “True Grit” is not a lazy trace of the original, an homage with meatier performances, more inventive casting and a different (and arguably more interesting) focus. 

“True Grit” 2010 shifts the spotlight to Mattie and her quest, thrusting Steinfeld front and center. She displays the same fearlessness as her character, infusing Mattie with determination to burn. Hers is the breakout performance of 2010, maybe the decade. Mattie strikes out alone into the Oklahoma terrain in search of someone to help her hunt down Chaney. Her only stipulation? She gets to do the killing. She hears of a local legend, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a full-time drunkard/sometime bounty hunter rumored to have “true grit,” and offers him a reward for catching her father’s killer. Cogburn mistakes Mattie’s youth for naïveté at first, but her persistence and her money win him over. The two set out for Indian territory, where Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper’s (Barry Pepper) gang, with a squeaky third wheel: conceited Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, sinister and funny), who’s chased Chaney all the way from Texas. Because LaBoeuf is everything Cogburn is not (articulate, sober, possessed of soap), it’s a mismatch that produces some big laughs. That patented Bridges mumble makes off-the-cuffers into one-liners. Cogburn’s assessment of a violently botched shootout in which LaBoeuf is injured — “That didn’t pan out” — is golden. The line belongs to Portis, who wrote the novel, but damn if it wouldn’t sound right at home in “Blood Simple.”

The gallows humor is a Coen brothers staple; aside from that, “True Grit” bears little resemblance to the Coens’ body of work. They’re trying someone else’s new tricks instead of getting up to their old ones. The film looks like a vintage Western, with its endless expanses of land and looming skies. Cinematographer Roger Deakins revives his gift for gently coaxing his surroundings to tell their own story. It’s a bit sad that the scenery must play understudy to the essentially faultless performances. Brolin has one note, but he plays it smashingly, while Pepper’s ringleader is a surprisingly reasonable chap. Damon plays LaBoeuf for laughs and adds a welcome undercurrent of personal entitlement. Bridges’ gruff, disheveled ne’er-do-well has critics foaming at the mouth with praise. It’s all deserved. He puts such a Jeff Bridges stamp on the performance that comparisons to John Wayne become irrelevent. Even more impressive is Steinfeld, whose screen presence often rivals Bridges’. Steinfeld makes us believe she is the girl who won’t rest until her father’s killer is barking in hell. And you’d better believe she’ll have his leash in a death grip.  

Grade: A

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No. 9: “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

“Well, all the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, more is going out the door. After awhile you just have to try to get a tourniquet on it.” ~~Ellis

There’s this thing that Joel and Ethan Coen, directors of “No Country for Old Men,” understand that so few filmmakers do: It’s the quiet films that pack the biggest punch. Not that “No Country” is a quiet film, exactly. There’s action aplenty, including several tense shootouts and a few point-blank assassinations; blood spillage is at a premium. But it’s the bone-dry dialogue, the sideways glances, the eerie periods of silence that make “No Country” so unsettling, so revealing. For these characters, silence means much more than words ever could and it’s thrilling and brilliant to watch.

And so “No Country for Old Men” begins quietly, with personable but jaded West Texas Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (a first-rate Tommy Lee Jones) explaining how the things he’s seen have changed him, put his “soul at hazard.” Bell is a wise man who has seen everything but used his laconic wit to keep the danger from warping his soul. But he soon meets a bizarre crew of characters who aren’t quite so wise. Enter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a struggling cowboy who, while hunting one afternoon, stumbles onto a drug deal gone awry. Nearly everyone is dead (even the dog) except for a dying man demanding water, and there’s an abandoned truck loaded down with Mexican brown. Moss finds a briefcase full of money under a shade tree and takes off. But his conscience wakes him up later that night, and he returns to the shootout scene with a jug of water.

This, of course, is a colossal mistake, and one that turns “No Country for Old Men” into an unflinching, unforgiving game of hide, seek, kill. Now Moss has placed himself squarely in the sights of Anton Chigurh (a chillingly blank Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who wants the drug money back at any cost. This foolish decision sets in motion a chain of events — “you can’t stop what’s coming,” Bell’s father Ellis (Barry Corbin) observes — that winds its way to a finale that offers up not the tiniest bit of closure.

“No Country for Old Men,” adapted by the Coen brothers from an even more bleak Cormac McCarthy novel, is relentless in its pacing. The film never, ever lets up. Every moment is packed with tension, and audience anxiety only grows as it becomes clear that no character, not even Sheriff Bell, can see what’s coming his way. Relentless, too, is the bracing black humor that pervades the Coen brothers’ deadpan script. There’s a scene where a leery Moss, who’s hiding out at a fleabag motel, agrees to have a beer with a woman he meets poolside. She assures him: “The only thing beer leads to is more beer.” What happens next is textbook Coen. Better still is the conversation between Chigurh and a cashier, which draws shudders when it becomes obvious the men are talking about more than a coin toss. Coen regular Roger Deakins amps up this tension with his expansive camera work; he creates a vivid landscape that moves and breathes.

Yet the dialogue would fall flat without the right performances, and every one of them is faultless. Jones hits a career-best as Bell, turning what could have been an “aw shucks” Barney Fife into a sad and vulnerable character. Brolin finds the right mix of bravado and fear in Moss. Kelly Macdonald makes the most of her role as Moss’s dim-witted but loving wife. As for Bardem, well, he’s so good at being scary scarier than “bubonic plague,” as one character observes, that it’s possible to forget his most unfortunate bob haircut. With a compressed-air cattle stun gun in hand, he just might be the nastiest, scariest villain ever to swagger onscreen. He’s a sneaky one.

Such is the way of “No Country for Old Men.” By Coen design the film sneaks up on you, burrows its way, chigger-like, under your skin like a chigger and stays there. You don’t feel the sting until it’s far, far too late to pull back.