TERRY GROSS, host:
The Arkansas-based writer Charles Portis is best known for his brutal but comic Western novels "Norwood" and "True Grit," the basis of a hit movie starring John Wayne. Now filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have made their own "True Grit," starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, and co-starring Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joel and Ethan Coen are probably tired of the question, but you can't not ask it: Why make a film of Charles Portis' 1968 novel "True Grit" when it already was a movie, a good one, with a definitive, Oscar-winning performance by John Wayne as the one-eyed marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn? After all, it's not like the brothers need the work.
On the basis of the new film, I'd say the Coens made their own "True Grit," because their voice and sensibility owe something to Portis. Their dialogue, like his, is a blend of the baroque and the deadpan, their vision nihilistic with a hint of farce.
The Coens signal their approach to "True Grit" by replacing the Duke with "The Big Lebowski's" the Dude, Jeff Bridges - and by introducing him, or rather his voice, from an outhouse. He sits inside and churlishly refuses to engage with Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, a 14-year-old girl who seeks a man with, quote, "true grit," to help her capture the drunken handyman who gunned down her father.
Rooster is a mean drunk who once rode with William Quantrill, the man who led the infamous Lawrence, Kansas massacre of 1863. Bridges plays up the debauchery: He's half-hidden behind an unruly beard and mustache, and his nose and cheeks are dotted with the alcoholic's classic burst blood vessels. He's lowered his voice so that it seems to slosh around in a pool of whiskey and phlegm. Even with his deliberate, quasi-biblical diction, maybe half his words are intelligible.
(Soundbite of movie, "True Grit")
Ms. HAILEE STEINFELD (Actor): (as Mattie Ross) Can we depart this afternoon?
Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (as Rooster Cogburn) We? You are not going. That is no part of it.
Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) You have misjudged me if you think I'm silly enough to give you $50 and watch you simply ride off.
Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) I'm a bonded U.S. marshal.
Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) That weighs but little with me. I will see the thing done.
Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) (unintelligible) I can't go after Ned Pepper and his band of hard men and look after a baby at the same time.
Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) I am not a baby.
Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) We won't be stopping at boarding houses where there's warm beds and hot grub on the table. I'll be traveling fast, eating light. What little sleeping is done will take place on the ground.
Ms. STEINFELD: (as Mattie Ross) Well, I have slept out at night before. Papa took me and little Frank coon hunting last summer on the Petit Jean. We were in the woods all night. We sat around a big fire, and Yarnell told ghost stories. We had a good time.
Mr. BRIDGES: (as Rooster Cogburn) Coon hunting? This ain't no coon hunt.
EDELSTEIN: As you can infer from all that drunken, surly verbiage, the movie takes its sweet time to get going. But as soon as Mattie, Rooster and a Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon head off for Oklahoma's Indian Country, the movie finds its peculiar rhythm. Damon is a wonderful foil for Bridges, with his ostentatious, jangling spurs and fringed jacket. He's a macho preener, but he lives by a gentleman's code, and he's dogged.
Young Hailee Steinfeld, in her film debut, has a prim little unsmiling face and a Gatling-gun delivery that makes you laugh. Their banter is acid, but they're good company - like the movie.
Unlike the 1968 "True Grit," which had the look of a classic Southwest John Wayne picture, the Coens' version unfolds in barren high deserts and wintry forests, with a Carter Burwell score that's built around elegiac Protestant spirituals. In Roger Deakins' beautifully deep-toned cinematography, the frontier is like a vast graveyard, still resonating with the deaths of Native Americans and the carnage of the Civil War. Rotting corpses hang from trees. In one surreal shot, a bear on horseback slowly approaches - only it turns out to be a man, bigger and older and hairier than Bridges' Rooster, with an even deeper voice, a nomad searching for anything, even a corpse, to buy and sell.
Retribution, when it comes, has no particular kick - or, rather, without giving anything away, its kick leads to a new disaster and can't be savored. Even when the lone-gunfighter hero rises up to face off against the bad guys, there's no catharsis, no sense of wrongs cosmically righted. Perhaps that's why the Coens' "True Grit," amusing and impressive as it is, is an arm's-length experience, without much emotional power. The brothers have reclaimed Portis' novel from John Wayne by making it darker and colder and more grotesque. The prevailing stoicism and death is their idea of realism - of true grittiness.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Tomorrow, David will talk with us about his 10-best list, and our rock critic Ken Tucker will talk about his best of the year list.
We want to close with a great Christmas song, so we asked Milo Miles, who reviews world music and roots music for us, to choose a favorite. I've got him on the phone.
Milo, what would you like to play for us?
MILO MILES: Well, I picked "At the Christmas Ball" by Bessie Smith, a deep favorite of mine. It was recorded in 1925, with Joe Smith on cornet and Charlie Green on trombone and Fletcher Henderson on piano. It's done in a style that's never played on the radio, so it'll never be overexposed. But it's a favorite song of mine because it's a celebration of Christmas parties. And you always play Christmas music at the Christmas party, so it's nice to have a wonderful tune that actually celebrates the party itself, done by the great Bessie Smith.
GROSS: It's funny that you chose this, because Friday, Christmas Eve Day, we're featuring a concert with Rebecca Kilgore singing Christmas songs and winter songs. And she sings this song in that concert. So that's great.
MILES: There you go. It has appeal.
GROSS: Thank you so much for choosing this. And Milo, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.
MILES: And the same back.
GROSS: Thank you.
GROSS: And we wish that to our audience, too, to our listeners.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So here's Bessie Smith.
(Soundbite of song, "At the Christmas Ball")
Unidentified Man: Hey, Merry Christmas to you.
Ms. BESSIE SMITH (Blues singer): Hear, hear. Hurray for Christmas.
(Singing) Christmas comes but once a year, and to me, it brings good cheer, and to everyone who likes wine and beer. Happy New Year is after that. Happy I'll be, that is a fact. That is why I like you here. Oh, I say that Christmas is here. Christmas bells will ring real soon, even in the afternoon.