[Screen It]

(2010) (Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 14-year-old Arkansas girl hires a gritty 19th century federal marshal to find and capture the man who killed her father.
It's the 1870s and Mattie Ross (HAILEE STEINFELD) is a 14-year-old Arkansas girl who's mature beyond both her age and the era in which she lives. She puts her determination to use in wanting to hire someone to find and capture Tom Chaney (JOSH BROLIN), a handyman who's just killed her father.

No one takes her seriously, including Texas marshal La Boeuf (MATT DAMON) who's been tracking Chaney for a long time and over great distances following the man having also murdered a Texas senator. He believes that Chaney is traveling somewhere in hostile Indian territory and may have met up with his cohort, Lucky Ned Pepper (BARRY PEPPER).

La Boeuf wants nothing of her offer to hire someone to find her father's killer and bring him to justice, a sentiment shared by Rooster Cogburn (JEFF BRIDGES), a federal marshal with a gritty reputation of getting the job done but usually with a high body count. Despite his demeanor, Mattie is sure Cogburn is the man for the job and thus hires him with the condition that she travel along with him.

He agrees, and leaves the next morning, not with her by his side, but La Boeuf who wants to take Chaney back to Texas for a handsome reward. Mattie will have no part of that or being left behind. Accordingly, she rides out and finds both, and then continues with them on their manhunt. From that point on, they travel across potentially dangerous lands, following leads they hope will take them to Chaney.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
You have to admire the chutzpah or, then again, question the sanity of any filmmaker who decides to make a movie in a once popular genre pretty given up for dead of recent. After all, while filmmaking is about art, it's also driven by the need to turn a profit. Throw in making such a film a remake of an iconic picture in said genre and the odds of success become even more troubling, what with audiences mixed at best on how they feel about robbing, sorry, revisiting Hollywood history.

Yet, that's exactly what Joel Coen and Ethan Coen have done with their brand spanking new version of "True Grit." While that title might not ring any bells for younger viewers, older ones will certainly remember that as one of John Wayne's signature movies, and the only one for which he ever won an Academy Award. So, in some circles, this is fairly sacred cinematic ground and anyone daring to tread on it had better step both gingerly and with great doses of respect.

The brotherly filmmaking duo, however, who sort of reinvented the western post modern style with their excellent "No Country for Old Men" in 2007, have confidently kicked open the salon doors with such a terrific film that tumbleweeds gathering on Wayne's version out back will now likely completely cover it into near obscurity.

Fans of Charles Portis' source novel -- on which both this and the 1969 version are based -- have long complained that the story and one of its most notable characters -- that being one Rooster Cogburn -- were altered too much to fit in with the Duke's well-known acting style. Here, and working from their own adaptation of the original novel, the Coens have returned things to their roots. Namely, that's turning the focus back onto the 19th century girl who wants to go all Wrath of Khan on the man who killed her father.

After all, it's her character that drives (and narrates) the tale of revenge, and the filmmakers probably could not have done any better than casting young teenager Hailee Steinfeld in the part. Beyond a few TV appearances, this is her big screen debut and boy does she make a splash. Kids back in the 1800s had to grow up fast to survive and that's her character type -- tough, resilient and confident beyond her years.

Blessed with the right physical look (the verge of adolescence trying to fight its way to the surface to overcome her tomboyish qualities) and working with some great dialogue (courtesy of Portis and the Coens), she takes the character and runs with it, delivering an award caliber performance and quite an impressive one for someone of her age and limited thespian track record.

She certainly doesn't come off as intimidated by her more famous costar, acting legend and recent Oscar winner, Jeff Bridges. He takes over the role of the ornery, one-eyed, trigger happy and sometimes drunk lawman who she hires to find and bring her father's killer to justice. Some will undoubtedly compare Bridges to Wayne in the part, but the comparison should really go back to the novel in which case Bridges delivers the more accurate portrayal.

While Wayne's performance was good, it was really just him doing more of the same acting he'd perfected and repeated over the decades, and some believe his Oscar was one of those career body of work victories. Bridges, on the other hand, goes deeper into the character (we're even first introduced to him, audibly, while he's in an outhouse), creating an intriguing if flawed man.

His vocal performance (which initially sort of sounds like a variation of Billy Bob Thornton doing Sling Blade but then segues into its own style) is what really makes the part, however, with a near musical quality to the tones and rhythm of the delivery. If not for the brilliant Colin Firth in the equally superb "The King's Speech," and enough old guard members of the Academy who might hold a grudge about this somehow tainting Wayne's win, I would put my money on Bridges.

As they set off to find the killer (who turns out to be Josh Brolin in what amounts to just an extended cameo), the plot turns into something of an old west "road" trip flick where they occasionally cross paths with another lawman (played by Matt Damon who's quite good but not quite up to the same level of his costars), who's after the same culprit.

Few will likely be surprised that Bridges' old lawman character finally softens up and lets his parental instincts slowly start to surface toward the girl. Beyond that to-be-expected development, however, the rest of the story flow isn't a sure thing (at least to those not familiar with the novel), and that, along with the performances ensure that the pic is engaging and captivating from start to finish.

Throw in the usual array of terrific behind the camera work always associated with the Coen brothers' films -- including that from cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Roderick Jaynes, production designer Jess Gonchor, composer Carter Burwell and many others -- and the overall effort is a splendid return to the great westerns of yesteryear. As long as it's viewed as a different (and more accurate) version of Portis' novel rather than a remake of the 1969 film, even fans of the latter will probably admire what's been created here. My number four pick for best film of the year, the highly entertaining "True Grit" rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 2, 2010 / Posted December 22, 2010

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