The Coen brothers take a skewed mythic slant on True Grit 

Once Upon a Time in the West

Once Upon a Time in the West
True Grit

True Grit

True Grit is at once the straightest movie of the Coen brothers' career and the kinkiest. It takes chutzpah for filmmakers with a sensibility as distinctly offbeat as Joel and Ethan Coen's to remake an Academy Award-winning Hollywood classic that by nearly every measure "belongs" to legendary actor John Wayne. But it's also a safe choice in some ways. True Grit is a known title in a beloved genre, and with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon top-lining the cast, this is hardly a risky commercial proposition. All the Coens had to do was connect the dots and count the money.

That they don't quite do that may prove frustrating for some, at least at first. True Grit is a handsome film, with Roger Deakins' burnished cinematography and Carter Burwell's stirring score setting an elegant stage — which the Coens then populate with world-class eccentrics. Bridges plays marshal-for-hire Rooster Cogburn as a mush-mouthed souse, delivering a running monologue about the men he's killed and the women he's driven away. Damon plays a dandyish Texas Ranger named La Boeuf, who has an untamable cowlick, a gift for gab, and a prideful streak as wide as the Panhandle.

And newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl with the poise, stubbornness and elocution of a 44-year-old spinster. When Mattie's father is shot dead in Fort Smith, Ark., she engages Cogburn to bring in the culprit before La Boeuf can beat them to it. And while all three explore the wilds of Indian country — sometimes working as a team and sometimes as rivals — they encounter all manner of outlaws, dimwits, mystics and madmen, in what critic Greil Marcus once dubbed "the old, weird America."

This new True Grit hews closer to Charles Portis' 1968 novel than did the 1969 John Wayne movie, which retained Portis' stylized dialogue but in truncated form. Like the 1969 film, the 2010 model takes its time to establish the mood and setting before Mattie and company light out for the territories. There's a lengthy piece of horse-trading, for example, and an extended courtroom scene, both running longer than they did in '69. Both also emphasize the characters' combination of regional lingo and elevated, archaic language — a combo not unlike what the Coens themselves devised for films such as Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy. And eventually, yes, there are gunfights and cave rescues and outsize derring-do, reflecting both Portis' and the Coens' vision of a country governed by those few people who've found a rhythm to the madness all around them.

In the end, though, this True Grit isn't strictly a Coen brothers movie, and it isn't an old-fashioned crowd-pleasing western. Once viewers grow accustomed to the quirks, they're likely to find the film surprisingly funny and even moving, but it remains an odd duck throughout — an experiment with form and iconography akin to what Portis attempted with his book. This story is all about looking into the past from a cockeyed angle and testing the durability of our shared myths, be they biblical or torn from the pages of an adventure magazine. And though it dares to border on the cartoonish, True Grit ultimately expresses faith in the tall tales that sustain us, showing how reassuring it can be to lean on those everlasting arms.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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