If there’s one thing I don’t need in my Christmas stocking this year, it’s a sorry, lumbering and unasked-for remake of the 1969 sagebrush saga True Grit. Stick it into the one reserved for thorns and thistles. The original Western won John Wayne a puzzling and undeserved Oscar for finally falling off his horse. Don’t expect the same miracle for Jeff Bridges. In the numbing hands of pretentious filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, history does not repeat itself in any way whatsoever.
It’s still based on the Charles Portis novel about a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (memorably played 40 years ago by Kim Darby) who recruits a one-eyed spittoon relic and grizzly old drunken has-been bounty hunter named Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) and a skanky Texas Ranger (a hopelessly miscast Matt Damon) to track down and bring to justice a no-good outlaw drifter named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the varmint who murdered her father.
Back in the day, veteran director Henry Hathaway knew how to whittle down a long-winded novel and prune away the chips for maximum entertainment value. Despite an occasional surprise such as Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never met a comma, period or semicolon they didn’t like. Their movies ramble through open space like rail fences on a cattle ranch.
Now we get all the detritus from the novel—endless shootouts in log cabins, blood splattering across saddles, fingers chopped off, birds pecking out the eyeballs of a man in a noose, horses beaten until they drop dead, Mattie falling into a den of rattlesnakes—for no reason except to make the audience retch. Mere distractions, folks, to divert attention from the fact that nothing is going on elsewhere.
Oh, well. At least, for reasons you’ll learn if you mosey into this shoot-’em-up without warning, there won’t be a retread of the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, which starred Duke Wayne and Katharine Hepburn.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is a passable Mattie, but she’s no Kim Darby. The really appalling thing here is Bridges. Last year, he won an Oscar. This year, he gives the worst performance of 2010, grunting and growling with a throat full of gravel that renders any rational assessment of the screenplay pointless. (Maybe the Coens planned it that way. What I did hear between burps, flatulence and snoring is not worth repeating.) Incoherent mumbling has become his trademark, substituting bloated self-indulgence for what used to be acting.
Bridges does everything to out-wobble, out-drawl, out-screech and outdo Wayne, hoping his meandering tirade will make everyone forget the original and forgo comparisons. The result is just the opposite: This violent, boring and unnecessary re-shoeing of an old mare that ain’t what she used to be only reminds you of how much you forgot you cared about Wayne in the first place.