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True to form ; The Coen Brothers take the revered novel turned classic Hollywood Western and make it their own -- with help from Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin

Hollywood, famously, stole "True Grit" from its author Charles Portis. The result was a smash hit movie. It gave John Wayne his Oscar. It solidified Glen Campbell's stardom, not to mention his hairdo. And it set actress Kim Darby on a path to drug addiction.

On Portis' behalf, Joel and Ethan Coen have just stolen it back in one of the best films of the season. The movie opens Wednesday in area theaters.

Leave it to writers. They know who the other writers are. And sometimes they respond to those whose reputations are in need.

Charles Portis, still very much with us, will be 77 years old next Tuesday. His "True Grit" is one of the superb American novels of the past century and his work is extravagantly admired by other writers, even though his ability to fit into the usual channels of American literary commerce seems almost nonexistent.

The Coens -- especially Ethan (the more literary one) -- are such good writers themselves that they are probably the greatest literary adapters we have at the moment. They proved it with their Oscar-winning version of Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," and they're proving it here with their version of "True Grit," in which some terrific actors are deployed in dialogue that preserves Portis' flavor.

Singular though it may be, the dialogue for Portis' tale of a mean, murdering Arkansas drunk and a prim teenage girl out to avenge her father's death may have been hugely influential in America -- not just in Coen Brothers' movies but possibly in David Milch's Twain cum Shakespeare re-creation of frontier lingo in HBO's fondly remembered "Deadwood."

Go back and watch the Coens' "Raising Arizona" -- or read the published script -- and you'll know how ready they were to give us the "True Grit" we probably should have had all along, rather than that blockbuster death gasp of old-school Hollywood.

The Coens and Portis are a marriage made in heaven. And heaven knows the Coens' "True Grit" is full of their usual dry, ultra-dark wit and savagery. But somehow this movie turns out to be their most heart-rending work thus far -- almost the only one where these sharp, nasty brains and cold, cold hearts allow themselves a clear, unobstructed view of the heart and its ever-unfathomable reasons.

It's still the same old story -- about 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who hires vicious one-eyed reprobate Rooster Cogburn to find her father's killer, even though the only thing he seems to love more than killing miscreants is "pulling a cork."

The Texas ranger along for the ride -- the Glen Campbell part if you will -- is portrayed with maximum wit and semantic formality by Matt Damon, who spends half his screen time pretending to deliver his lines with a severely wounded tongue. You wouldn't exactly be seeing that in a Glen Campbell performance in a Henry Hathaway Western, believe me.

The bad guy they're chasing -- the one who killed Mattie's father -- is Josh Brolin, who is rapidly turning into an ideal actor for the Coen boys, a guy who seems to both understand and manifest whatever it is they want from him, whether it's cupidity or stupidity. Along the way, in fact, Brolin is quietly turning into one of the smartest and most interesting character actors in Hollywood.

But the heart of any rendering of Portis' grand old chase tale is the relationship of foul, profane one-eyed killer Rooster and the tough, feisty 14-year-old girl who hires him for the "true grit" that she herself possesses in astonishing abundance.

And that's where the Coens do so well.

Their hairy, stinking old Rooster is Jeff Bridges, first encountered by the imperturbable Mattie in an outhouse but all through the movie possessed by Portis' baroque frontier language. And yes, it means that in the American imagination, Duke Wayne is going to have to make some room for the Rooster Cogburn incarnation of The Dude (as Bridges, with modern-era immortality became in one of the great roles of the last half-century, Jeff Lebowski in "The Big Lebowski").

Rooster hasn't an ounce of sentimentality. About not being able to bury one of his victims in ground that's become too hard, he growls, "If that man wanted a decent burial, he should have died in summer."

Playing a young Mattie is a terrific young actress named Hailee Steinfeld, who winds up having much more wiry ferocity than Kim Darby's adamant Mouseketeer performance, as good as it was for a time when such performances were expected to be a good deal less audacious.

Rooster does a lot of talking and shooting and drinking; Mattie does a lot of protesting, tagging along and standing up for herself. Without a single tender word passing between them, they turn into a loving, pseudo-familial partnership.

Imagine, a Coen brothers movie with thoroughly adequate room left for the human heart (and don't tell me about the sarcastic last scene in "Fargo" either).

As Mattie might say, "The wonder of all things watches over me."

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

True Grit

3 1/2 (stars out of 4)

Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin in Joel and Ethan Coen's new adaptation of Charles Portis' revered Western novel about a young girl and a mean, drunken killer out for revenge.

Rated PG-13 for intense violence.

Opening tomorrow in area theaters.

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