Thursday, my friends Vickie and Janet and I decided to get together for a glass of wine and Girls’ Movie Night. We toyed with the idea of Black Swan until disturbing reports of heinous acts with nail files and stabbings with shards of broken mirror made us think twice. I like my movie violence straight up and classic, so I steered us to the new remake of True Grit. It was the right choice.

John Wayne created an indelible Rooster Cogburn. But it was a John Wayne creation. The marvelous Jeff Bridges gives us another Rooster, one straight out of the cult Charles Portis novel. The Coen Brothers, too, have opted for a straight-forward, straight-up Western complete with panoramic vistas framing an unambiguous story of good and evil and bad guys brought to justice by good guys. Their movie, like the book, is not a star vehicle about a lovable old Western rascal. Their story is of three unlikely compadres — a full-of-himself Texas Ranger, a one-eyed drunken sheriff/bounty hunter and a 14-year-old girl who, in the course of their adventure, discover in each other that rarest and probably most valuable of Western commodities, True Grit.

Grover Cleveland

Rooster Cogburn, in the book, is described as looking like Grover Cleveland. I think I’ll take Jeff Bridges.

I don’t intend to give a movie review. Read Roger Ebert, who as always, nails it. I’ll just give you a few random thoughts that the inestimable Mr. Ebert left out.

Jeff Bridges is as close to the literary Rooster as I could imagine, except about 50 pounds too light. I think I remember the book describing Rooster as looking like Grover Cleveland. But after years and years of lean cowboy heroes, I don’t think we’d accept someone of that girth on a horse. We’d worry about the horse. I’d also hate to see Jeff Bridges compromise his health by putting on the weight for the movie. So I’ll accept his Rooster as being as authentic as we’ll get. I did notice, as the credits rolled, that Matt Damon had an “Abs Double” listed, although I couldn’t remember a scene where his or his stand-in abs were on display. Perhaps Jeff should have had an Abs Double or a Girth Double. On second thought scratch that.

I should also note that the Coen Brothers paid particular attention to teeth in this movie. There are a lot of really bad ones on display. You’ll barely even recognize Barry Pepper as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper through the tartar, tobacco stains and snaggles.

The Coen Brothers also wisely steered clear of today’s fashion for revisionists Westerns, where the heroes are not that heroic and hardly distinguishable from the villains. Or maybe Charles Portis’s book itself was the original revisionist Western by creating a West that is probably closest to the truth of what it was like back then.

The bad guys in True Grit, book and movie, aren’t dashing villains or criminal masterminds. They are a loose collection of drifters, near psychopaths, the IQ challenged, misfits and losers. I’m sure then as now, you don’t go into violent or petty crime if you have the brains or the drive to do anything else.

This point really came home as we were contemplating another glass of wine after the movie and Janet suddenly came out with one of those stories you only seem to hear in the West. It was a story that makes you realize that the Western canon is truer than you think. The immortal words of Huck Finn come to mind (as he described the book Samuel Clemens wrote about him): “Some of it were stretched, but most of it were true.”

It seems Janet’s Great Grandmother was one of only two survivors in her family of an Indian massacre. As such, she was given a $75 a month restitution pension by the Government. She was murdered for that check by a man who killed her, ate her waiting supper, then burned down her house. He was apprehended when his horse was recognized outside the bank where he was attempting to cash her check. His days ended quickly after that when he became the last man hanged in Curry County, Oregon.

Whew! There’s the Coen Brother’s next movie.

I’d like to think that, had Janet been alive then, and had she decided to ride out with a one-eyed drunken sheriff and a Texas Ranger seeking justice, Vickie and I would have ridden with her.

NOTE: If you are interested in the historical record on Janet’s family history, she’s forwarded on a great article here. And here is the text of the contemporary article about the hanging.