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'True Grit,' the Coens’ wry biblical western

Are the Coen Brothers going biblical on us?

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

Are the Coen Brothers going biblical on us?

Although True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen's artfully wrought and agreeably wry western, is based on Charles Portis' 1968 novel, the film's quotations from the Old Testament, literal and metaphorical, are everywhere. Some of these references, too, hail from Portis' book, but after tackling the trials of Job in A Serious Man, it appears that the moviemaking siblings have taken an especially keen interest in the venerable Christian and Hebrew texts.

True Grit begins, in fact, with an epigram out of Proverbs 28:1: "The wicked flee when none pursueth. . . . "

The rest of that line the Coens leave offscreen, but it's worth noting because it speaks to the nature of True Grit's impossibly plucky heroine: " . . . but the righteous are as bold as a lion."

Mattie Ross, all of 14, and played with sublime certitude by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, is that bold lioness. As True Grit begins, the pigtailed girl has arrived in Fort Smith, Ark., to collect the body of her dead father, and to hire a bounty hunter to go after the killer. She fully intends to join in the chase, and the early scenes of Mattie haggling with a stable owner, questioning the bill for her father's coffin, and dogging the one-eyed gunslinger who she's got in mind for the job, reveal just how composed and confident this pip-squeak is. Her acuity, her gumption, her way with words . . . if 2010 has been a great year for women's roles, and it has, then it's essential to put Mattie Ross up there near the top of the list. (And she's a good three years younger than Ree Dolly, the brave backwoods teenager of Winter's Bone.)

As folks who remember John Wayne in the original True Grit well know, the name of the U.S marshal that Mattie offers to employ is Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges - whose previous collaboration with the Coens produced cinema's iconic stoner, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski - plays Cogburn with eyepatch and baggy long johns, and with a gruff, grizzled conviction. Cogburn, it can be argued, is a whole lot like Bad Blake - the booze-soaked country balladeer of Crazy Heart that won Bridges his long-overdue best-actor Oscar this year. Neither Blake nor Cogburn is at the top of his game, both keep a bottle (or two) close by out of necessity, and redemption comes in the form of a younger woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart) who expects better of the man than he's currently able to show.

(As for the Duke and his 1969 True Grit: The Coens have said that they did not revisit the earlier film - which won Wayne an Oscar - and that they wrote and conceived their version based wholly on Portis' prose. In a similar spirit, this reviewer will not cite the previous iteration again.)

And so, off Mattie and Rooster go - though that's not exactly how things start. Not to spoil one of the finer of many fine scenes the Coens have orchestrated, the girl and the marshal's ride-up doesn't officially begin until she's done some demanding equestrian work of her own, on a pony called Blackie.

And Mattie and Rooster aren't alone then, either: There's another lawman out to catch Tom Chaney, a rather comically florid Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (pronounced here as le beef). Matt Damon, sporting spurs and Stetson, imbues deadpan dignity to a part that's got considerable foolishness about it. His campside recollections of Ranger lore are particularly rich.

Josh Brolin shows up as Chaney, the coon in Mattie and Rooster's "coon hunt," and Brolin plays the murderer as a kind of dim but dangerous thug. But even he speaks with a kind of antique eloquence - the language in True Grit is one of the film's greatest pleasures. Even the crustiest of cowpokes talks in artful, winding sentences, with a formality and manner that do as much to take us back to the 1870s as do the period clothes and props.

True Grit is probably the least ironic picture in the Coen Brothers' worthy canon, but that doesn't mean it's devoid of their signature oddities, that it doesn't take a few dark, strange turns. The unexpected sight of a bear riding horseback, or the fidgety manner in which a defense attorney takes to the witness stand, or the offhand but lamentably truthful way in which blacks and American Indians are treated by the whites of the post-Civil War West - there are Coen-esque moments here, to be sure.

For some reason, True Grit got me thinking about The Lord of the Rings, too: another tale where an unlikely and seemingly ill-equipped protagonist rides off on an epic quest, aided, here and there, by curious men on horseback, and forced to face daunting challenges in the form of evildoers, serpents, and dark holes in the ground.

Of course, there are plenty of snakes and caves in the Bible, too.