Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY
Heroes take strange forms in the realm of the Coen brothers.
Usually it's a person least equipped to deal with the life-or-death challenges at hand - the polite, pregnant cop of Fargo, the aging, tired one of No Country for Old Men, the three bumbling escaped convicts of O Brother, Where Art Thou, or the guy who just wants to replace his rug and not spill his beverage inThe Big Lebowski.
At the center of their Western True Grit, which opened Wednesday, is another unlikely central character: a 14-year-old girl with pigtails, bent on avenging her father's murder.
"The central joke is that the 14-year-old is the schoolmarm," Ethan Coen says.
Joel Coen brought up the idea of making a film from the 1968 Charles Portis novel after he and his wife (Fargo Oscar winner Frances McDormand) read it aloud to their young son as a way of getting him interested in books. Coen thought the adventure story, about a child surviving on wits and lucky shots, would intrigue him.
It ended up intriguing the brothers, too. "It's this precocious kid who gets thrown into an adult world, and the adults have to measure up to her," Joel says. "The kid is the adult and the adults are the babies. They're the ones who act like children, and the kid has to maintain the reason and order. It's a question of whether the adults show their strength in the movie."
The girl, played by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, has only one power: purity of purpose, and her fast-talking seems to mesmerize the most grizzled scoundrels. "She's looking for someone who has the mettle and ability to help her," Ethan says.
Accompanying this girl is Jeff Bridges as the one-eyed, fat, drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn- also not the prototypical good guy on a white horse.
For years, the Coens have wanted to reunite with their star of The Big Lebowski, but as the laid-back insouciance of The Dude has become an ever-more-present part of Bridges' own personality (even his character in TRON: Legacy bemoans "messing with my Zen-thing"), the brothers didn't want to get anywhere near that character again.
"We really wanted to do something with Jeff in the intervening years. But the character he did, we all enjoyed, so we wanted to do something with him, but not do the same thing," Joel says.
"(Cogburn) would not have much time for The Dude," Ethan says, which makes his brother laugh. "He's not a warm bath like The Dude is."
"But it has been pointed out to us," Joel adds, "that we tend to cast Jeff as someone who is mentally befogged by some kind of drug, be it alcohol or marijuana."
"He's moved from White Russians (the Dude's favorite drink) to whiskey," Ethan says.
Cogburn was still a mess, but he was far more clean-cut in the original 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis' book. The original starred John Wayne in the role, which won him a best-actor Oscar. He was rough, but he was still The Duke.
Bridges' filthy, corrupt take on the character makes Cogburn no one you'd want around a little girl. Even Cogburn himself seems to feel that way. But the girl's allegiance to him is partly because she wants her father's killer (Josh Brolin) to suffer for his crime.
It's implied that Cogburn's allegiance to the law is predicated on the size of the bounty, and in the meantime he is just as likely to rob a bank as protect it. His many killings justified as "self-defense" are suspect.
"You don't want to mess with him," Bridges says. "Back in those days, and I don't know, it even applies today, people like him do often cross over and play both sides of the fence."
Cogburn's reckless personality comes out in contrast with Matt Damon co-starring as a pompous Texas Ranger who sneers at Cogburn's checkered history, though they both learned gunslinging while fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
"They have different ideas of chivalry and what was the righteous path, though they were both on the same side," Bridges says.
As the girl pulls Rooster closer toward doing something for the right reason, her quest of vengeance is simultaneously pulling her toward the wrong one. There are other options for justice, but she is determined to draw blood - even if she loses some herself.
The movie's exploration of what makes someone truly tough finally comes down to that common theme in a Coen brothers drama: It's not the size of the gun - and in this case it's not about the size of the hands holding it, either.
It's about that person's reason for pulling the trigger.