The Dude becomes the Duke in the Cohen brothers' western remake that delivers on just about every front
Who needs John Wayne when you’ve got Jeff Bridges? Where the Duke once ruled the roost, the Dude now abides and with the Cohen brothers long awaited re-imagining of True Grit, he may just have made the best film of his career.
Working with Joel and Ethan Cohen for the first time since he redefined beer belly boasting, cardigan-wearing cool in The Big Lebowski, Bridges inhabits the Rooster Cogburn role once owned by the ageing Wayne like only he can. Unafraid to expose his ageing frame and surplus flesh in the name of cinematic honesty, he embodies everything that is fresh and vital about a film adaptation that delivers on just about every front.
Bouncing boozily off the furniture and getting himself tangled up in his stirrups like a man perpetually one drink away from oblivion, Bridges plays the US Marshal and ruthless bounty hunter hired by a young girl to track down her father’s feckless killer. He delivers his dialogue in what seems like one long continuous belch of refried tobacco smoke and cheap whisky fumes. It’s Bridges in his comfort zone for sure, but when a character fits as snugly as this who cares about pushing the thespian envelope?
Despite this remarkable performance, however, Bridges still manages to play second fiddle throughout to Hailee Steinfeld, whose portrayal of 14-year-old Mattie Ross at the core of this simple tale of family loss and revenge is simply stunning.
Confident way beyond her years and a natural in front of camera, Steinfeld is a revelation. How she’s only nominated as Best Supporting Actress in a film she commands effortlessly throughout, is a question best aimed at the buffoons who decide such things.
Aside from the leads, Matt Damon is reliably understated as Texas Ranger La Boeuf, a third party hot on the trail of the gunman Tom Chane (a small role for Josh Brolin), but really this is the story of a girl and her bounty hunter.
This take on the old favourite returns to the original novel by Charles Portis rather than director Henry Hathaway’s 1969 Oscar winner for inspiration and it's all the better for it.
Huge swathes of dialogue from that small but perfectly formed essay in pride and retribution are lifted shamelessly here, but in the hands of arch wordsmiths the Cohens, everything sounds tailor made for their unique character-rich style of storytelling.
There’s a deeply poetic rhythm to the strangely archaic old English that evokes a lost era of measured justice, dignity in trying circumstances and well-honed wit. Like Deadwood, minus the nonstop profanity, the words wash over you.
Throughout it all, the unmistakable touch of the Cohen brothers is clearly visible. True Grit is their best movie in years. Visually it’s a piece steeped in western lore, with the likes of The Searchers receiving nifty nods on occasion.
The weather-beaten browns and greys of cinematographer Roger Deakins capture the dusty mood of frontier life with great style. Vast vistas sweep by as the story unfolds, but it still feels like a simple story told with real intimacy and love. It is, in short, a masterpiece and one that fully eclipses the original. How often do you get to say that?