True Grit: Back in the saddle

What possessed the Coen brothers to remake the classic, which starred the greatest screen cowboy of all time? Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, says John Walsh, the new movie captures thoroughly modern themes of moral redemption

On 15 December, at a film premiere in New York, Jeff Bridges enthused to fans about the brilliant future that lay in store for the beautiful 13-year-old girl beside him who twirled for the cameras and told reporters, breathlessly, that she'd finished her 7th-grade exams during the shoot and was looking forward to entering 8th grade.

In the film, Bridges plays a clapped-out, broken-winded US marshal with an eye-patch, whom the girl hires to avenge the death of her father, killed by a renegade called Tom Chaney, who has a black powder-burn mark on his cheek...

You've heard this plot before? Of course you have. The original True Grit came out in 1969, directed by the veteran Henry Hathaway, and won an Oscar for its central character, played by the greatest screen cowboy of all, John Wayne. After a lifetime in movies, it was Wayne's only Oscar at the age of 62. ("Wow," said Wayne, as he accepted the trophy from Barbra Streisand. "If I'd have put that patch on 35 years earlier...") But the movie was a hit for many reasons.

For one, it was family-friendly. At its core was the precise, precocious, hyper-articulate and very Christian young girl, Mattie Ross, who always gets her way and successfully browbeats the drunken, one-eyed lawman, Rooster Cogburn. For another, it featured three nasty villains in Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, plus – among the good guys – the country singer Glen Campbell, playing (not terribly well) a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf.

The luminous photography was by Lucien Ballard, favourite Western lensman of Sam Peckinpah. It featured a fine climactic shoot-out in which Cogburn, insulted beyond endurance by four mounted enemies, yells, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch," takes the reins in his mouth and gallops straight at them, firing a revolver with one hand, firing and re-cocking his rifle with the other. And it had a happy ending, in which Rooster visits Mattie at her family ranch. She tells him she would like him to be buried beside her in the family plot and, with a cry of "Come see a fat old man sometime," he jumps a four-rail fence on his splendid new horse.

What on earth, then, could have persuaded Joel and Ethan Coen, the enfant terribles of Hollywood, the most quirky, stylised and intelligently weird of film-makers, to remake True Grit for a modern audience? Their version stars, alongside Bridges, Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, Josh Brolin as the murderous Chaney, and the startlingly accomplished Hailee Steinfeld as young Mattie.

Certainly there are some classic Coen touches: an opening scene that's one long, slow, zoom-in, a scene of public hanging played for laughs, a final coda that's one long, slow walk away from the camera, a surreal moment when a bear on horseback emerges from the frozen Colorado forest. But the majority of the film takes no shocking liberties with the original plot. Early reviews by American commentators are calling it "a reverential piece of nostalgia" and assumed that the Coens wanted to make a "straight" film for a change. Could that be true?

Such a limited view misses the point – indeed, it misses two points. The first is that nostalgia is the last thing the Coens are about. True Grit is a film about redemption, and both its theme and its idiom are as modern as WikiLeaks. The narrative about the comprehensively washed-up, or down-and-out, or alcoholic, or corrupted, or out-of-date, or retired, or morally disgraced suddenly finding themselves back on their feet in a big adventure is the most potent myth in modern movieland.

It's all over the place. Two weeks after True Grit opens on 22 December, we can enjoy Country Strong, the story of Kelly Canter (Gwyneth Paltrow,) an alcoholic singer just out of rehab following her arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct, who takes to the road and discovers that an irritating young rival is being given her songs. It's a version, with added tears, knickers and boyfriend fights, of the part Jeff Bridges played last year in Crazy Heart – Bad Blake, the has-been C&W singer who temporarily wins the heart of dreamboat local hack Maggie Gyllenhall.

Last year, Michael Caine played the retired ex-soldier turned inner-city vigilante in the pitiless British revenge thriller, Harry Brown. Two years ago, an almost unrecognisable Mickey Rourke virtually played himself in The Wrestler, about an old grunt'n'groaner with a dicky heart who refuses to succumb to a new career behind a sausage counter. It came out shortly after Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino, played a widowed, retired, ex-factory worker and Korean war veteran called Walt, whose life is confined to watering his lawn and grouching at his relatives until he redeems himself by saving his Hmong neighbours and spraying a local gang with bullets.

All these movies hark back to the classic 1982 Sidney Lumet film of David Mamet's courtroom drama The Verdict, starring Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic, washed-up, etc, lawyer who takes a medical malpractice case to court. They follow the same trajectory, as we watch a terminal no-hoper embark on a final, death-or-glory adventure. Where the Coen brothers have scored is in giving their washed-up, etc, hero a subversive pride in his own hopelessness: Bridges's Rooster never for a moment doubts his own abilities, even when he fails to shoot a whiskey bottle lying on the ground. His personal self-belief remains unaffected by events and setbacks. His personal redemption comes from a climactic, night-time ride to save a human being rather than to defeat an enemy or win a bounty. As such, it's far more moving than the usual triumph-of-the-has-been drama.

The second virtue critics may have missed is that the Coens are not trying to remake the film; they're trying to make a more faithful version of the book. Charles Portis's novel True Grit came out in 1968 and caused something of a stir in literary circles, but it was soon eclipsed by the hoo-hah around John Wayne's Oscar. The Coen brothers have gone back to Portis's clever fiction because they liked, not just the plot, but Portis's unique way with language.

So far, the US critics seem not to have noticed that Portis gave his characters an extraordinary cod-Victorian conversational style which fits perfectly with the Coens' love of strange and off-key communities. In the first film version, Matty, when haranguing Rooster Cogburn about his drunkenness and rousing him to action, says: "Now I know you can drink whiskey and I saw you kill a rat, but all the rest has been talk."

In the Coen brothers' version, she says: "Now I know you can drink, and swear and spit and bemoan your situation. The rest is braggadocio." Where a 14-year-girl could have picked up a word like "braggadocio" from, God only knows – but Rooster himself is capable of a posh turn of phrase when it suits. During a row with Matty and LaBoeuf, he wails, "I'm an old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpie in trousers and a nincompoop." Sounding like something from Jane Austen, Matty wails, "He has abandoned me to a convocation of thugs." When Rooster sets off without the girl, leaving her a note warning her (we hear only the voiceover) that "pursuit is futile," she berates him for having spelt "futile" as "fudel." At one point, Matty and LaBoeuf discuss the difference between malum prohibitum (something that's bad because it's illegal) and malum in se (something that's bad because it's morally wrong,) at which Rooster complains that the latter "spills the banks of English".

Does that phrase strikes you as a bit Shakespearean? Plenty of the dialogue could have come from Restoration comedy, or Henry James or, indeed, Joe Orton. Where the original film script, by Marguerite Roberts, allowed Matty one or two Bible-school locutions (when offered a slug of whisky by Cogburn, she says, "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains") the Coens' script presses down on the literary pedal, until the formality of language becomes a vital part of the film's unique world – just as the "oh-ya" dialogue helped define the Scandanavian micro-culture of their native Minnesota in the movie Fargo.

Starting from the proposition that we have little clear idea of how cowboys conversed in 1880, the Coen brothers spoof the whole tough-guy genre by having everyone speak in formal exchanges. In what other Western would a young girl tick off a Texas ranger for his "ineffectual pursuit" of a villain? In which one would a ranger say to a sheriff, "You seem to have graduated from a marauder to a wet-nurse"? No wonder they wanted to adapt the dialogue themselves. It's a scandal that they're not nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar.

True Grit is one film remake that makes sense. It takes the source material, a book that gently subverts and teases the earnest conventions of the Western genre, and tweaks up its subversive tactics; but it also honours the unique idiolect of the original, finding in it a language with which the makers can play merry hell. The result is terrific. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the new version of Brighton Rock (out in February, written and directed by Rowan Joffe) to see the difference between a remake and a genuine re-invention.