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In ‘True Grit’ remake, Jeff Bridges refashions Rooster Cogburn, Coen-style

THE COEN BROTHERS' "No Country For Old Men" told of a Texas sheriff who, confronted with the worst criminal he'd ever seen, spit the bit.

Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld star in "True Grit."
Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld star in "True Grit."Read more

THE COEN BROTHERS' "No Country For Old Men" told of a Texas sheriff who, confronted with the worst criminal he'd ever seen, spit the bit.

He would, he figured, have to corrupt himself to stop the killer.

It's "what you're willing to become," he tells us. "A man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I won't do that."

Now the Coens have made another western, from the Charles Portis novel "True Grit," and it's a fair to say there's a new sheriff in town.

He's the legendary Rooster Cogburn, happy to take on a half dozen evil men by putting the reins in his mouth and riding out with a gun in each hand.

If "No Country" deconstructed the western, "True Grit" rebuilds it, restoring an American frontier where right can be wrung from wrong. And where there is no rest for the wicked, because the lawmen who pursue them are flawed but ultimately good, fearless and relentless.

And so are the 14-year-old girls.

The irresistible heroine of "True Grit" (restored here to novelist Portis' original youthful conception of her) is a Presbyterian pistol named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a church-reared saddle burr with a pitiless eye for moral weakness and scathing tongue to match.

In the waning months of 1888, she arrives in Fort Smith, Ark., to reclaim the body of her slain father and to settle his affairs.

To Mattie, that means tracking down his murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Personally. She hires Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) because he's the most trigger-happy marshal available, and follows him into the lawless wilderness where Chaney has fled.

They are joined in this venture by a foppish Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is already on the trail of the fugitive, whose rap sheet is a long one.

It's an uneasy alliance. Cogburn and LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) dislike each other, and both men hate the idea of taking Mattie along. There is no ditching her, however, and her righteous zeal becomes one of the movie's emotional building blocks.

All declare an uneasy truce and soldier on, into the trackless Indian country to the west, where Chaney has joined up with a gang of bandits (led by Barry Pepper).

After the movie's leisurely opening (hang in there, it picks up), the Coens give "True Grit" a violent, road-movie midsection that verges into the surreal. They diverge from Portis' laconic comedy to create their own strange mood, augmented by cinematographer Roger Deakins' wintry landscapes and Carter Burwell's plaintive, hymn-driven score.

And Bridges' eccentric performance. It's possible that he's melted down his "Crazy Heart" Oscar and converted it into marbles, which he's placed in his mouth to play Rooster. I caught about two-thirds of what he said.

But there is method to his mumbling. He's taking the larger-than-life character that originated with John Wayne and making him into something human, a combat veteran (of the Civil War) and border skirmish mercenary whose violent past haunts and defines him. He kills too easily, drinks too much.

He is, in Bridges' hands, on the verge of moral and psychological collapse. Something stops him, brings him back - he's developed a soft spot for little Mattie.

If you do not, you are a hard-hearted person.

The Coens alter Portis' story as it builds to a head, and in their hands it becomes an allegory of dissolution and reconciliation - they play up invocations of the Civil War, magnify the feuds among their band of three.

This sets up a crackerjack finale, when the combined actions of LaBoeuf and Mattie and Rooster - at their mutual moment of truth - give this remake its own stamp and meaning.

It's moving, and brilliantly done, and shows how the Coens have strengthened and matured as filmmakers. Their work feels less engineered, and there's a new gravity and sincerity to it.

Ten years ago, would they have honored the western tradition, or winked at it?

There's no doubt which way they're leaning here.

They restore Portis' graceful epilogue, which returns Rooster to the heart of the Wild West, and the West to ours.