| Filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo”) re-imagine the classic Western novel by Charles Portis. The result is not an improvement on the original 1969 adaptation directed by Henry Hathaway.
Jeff “The Dude” Bridges (Oscar winner for “Crazy Heart”) takes on the role of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn made famous by the incomparable John “The Duke” Wayne. Acknowledging that nobody can match Wayne, who won his only Oscar for the role, Bridges wears a black eyepatch on his right eye rather than the left.
The character at the heart of this fantastic adventure story is Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a precocious and stubborn 14-year-old girl who leaves home to avenge her father’s death. Her dad was shot in cold blood in Fort Smith, Ark., by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who robbed him of his life, his chestnut mare Judy, $150 in cash plus two California gold pieces that were a marriage gift from Mattie’s maternal grandfather.
Mattie wants Chaney brought to justice and hanged for the killing. She learns that Chaney is hiding out in Indian Territory. This puts him outside the jurisdiction of the local sheriff.
Mattie hires Rooster to pursue her father’s murderer based on his reputation as the meanest U.S. deputy marshal. He is described by author Portis as “a pitiless man, double-tough and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.” It turns out Chaney has many aliases and is also wanted in Texas for killing a state senator in an argument over a dog.
Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon, has been doggedly pursuing Chaney and seeks a hefty monetary reward. He convinces Rooster that it is a two-man job to hunt down Chaney and take him alive.
The headstrong and persistent Mattie insists that she be allowed to go along on the journey. This pint-sized heroine seems to always get her way. During their long horseback trek, the cantankerous and uncouth Rooster tells her his life story that includes riding with Confederate guerilla leader William Quantrill in the Civil War.
The old and fat Rooster is a comical character. The stream of consciousness spewing out of his mouth is loaded with humorous barbs and wisecracks. A drunken tirade is carried to an extreme when he flings cornbread into the air for target practice.
The real benefit of this remake is that it exposes a whole new generation to a wonderful revenge and retribution story in the waning days of the Old West. The original Hathaway film took its time with clearer expositions and never seemed rushed. The Coen brothers take a lot of shortcuts in telling the story and cram in the expository dialogue. It is highly recommended that viewers rent the original so appropriate comparisons can be made. Steinfeld gives a very self-assured performance. Bridges does an admirable job walking in Wayne’s impossible-to-fill footsteps. His gruff voice makes some of the dialogue hard to discern.
The movie surpasses the original in sound effects, cinematography and a Western-themed original score. Other kudos go to the interior design of the courtroom, the scenes of Main Street and the period apparel.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"