When Joel and Ethan Coen decided to remake the John Wayne classic "True Grit," I had some doubts. John Wayne is larger than life, and to remake a John Wayne movie seems ridiculous. Who is going to play Wayne's Rooster Cogburn?
That question is more difficult than you can imagine because John Wayne didn't play Rooster Cogburn. He played John Wayne, just like he did in all his movies. When I read that Jeff Bridges would play Cogburn, my doubts grew.
But this rendering of "True Grit" far surpasses that 1969 original. Before you take issue with me, especially you die-hard John Wayne fans, hear me out.
This is not a story about the U.S. marshal played by Wayne. The first movie focused more on Wayne, and he filled the screen.
This story is more about retribution sought by a 14-year-old girl, played by Hailee Steinfeld. Steinfeld is Mattie Ross, who comes to Fort Smith, Ark., seeking Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Chaney murdered her father and then went out into Indian territory.
How far will this girl go for what she seeks? She bravely sleeps in the funeral home with three recently executed men on her first night in town.
Then Mattie hires Cogburn to go after Chaney, who is also being chased by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) for killing a Texas senator over a hunting dog. Cogburn and LaBoeuf throw in together to go after the outlaw, who is now part of Ned Pepper's (Barry Pepper) gang.
Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to leave Mattie behind, but she is undaunted. She goes out after them and accompanies them on the hunt.
There's more terror here than just sleeping with the dead, though. Seeing a hanging in Fort Smith is nothing compared to the ugliness of human depravity Mattie encounters on the trail. Death rides with her, and evil is as near as her next breath. To find justice for a dead father, she has to give up things that are precious.
This is not Wayne's "True Grit." That movie had light to it. Yes, the outlaws were bad men, but here the very air is menacing. The dialogue is biblical in nature, but this is not "'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." Instead, this is "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
Bridges speaks many of the lines Wayne did, but the delivery is empowered by the movie's atmospherics. Bridges has a meanness Wayne didn't. And Mattie here is not a 20-something playing a teen. This is a teen tougher than any kid on our streets today.
This "True Grit" is a ride into the heart of darkness, and there is little redemption. The Coen brothers give us no Hollywood movie, just a story of what it takes to make things right in a world of sin and loss.
And this movie doesn't belong to Jeff Bridges or Matt Damon. It belongs to Hailee Steinfeld. This is Mattie Ross' story, and Steinfeld makes us believe in a Mattie who would face Satan himself in order to avenge her father.
"True Grit" was one of my top 10 in 2010. And rightly so. It is a finely acted and photographed movie, and it will see a nomination come Oscar time.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of Western violence including disturbing images. Reviewer's note: Though PG-13, this could be easily an R-rated movie because of the violence.
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis)
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld: Mattie Ross; Jeff Bridges: Rooster Cogburn; Matt Damon: LaBoeuf; Josh Brolin: Tom Chaney; Barry Pepper: Ned Pepper.