In "True Grit," the Coens dial down the eccentricity and deliver their first classically made, audience-pleasing genre picture. The results are masterful. Their love for traditional Wild West movies glows with a cinephile's breadth of knowledge and a fan's mad crushes. With dazzling performances by Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, awe-inspiring cinematography and the Coens' trademark moral paradoxes, it's sweet nostalgia, subtly shaded with melancholy and peppered with dashes of black satire.
Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a starchy 14-year-old on a mission to avenge her slain father, killed by tenant farmer Tom Chaney, now a fugitive in the Choctaw Nation. To track Chaney through Indian territory, she employs Cogburn, a shabby U.S. marshal whose reputation for decisive, though ethically questionable, gunplay suits her purposes.
Hard-headed Mattie expects the old lawman to obey her directives and heed her advice like any other employee. She is not one to be trifled with; an early chapter of the story shows her bartering with a canny old horse trader so skillfully she reduces the man to sputtering apoplexy.
Mattie insists that Marshal Cogburn bring her along on the pursuit so she can savor their quarry's capture, or death. The tracker sees her as a liability. A great part of "True Grit's" charm is the friction between the blunt girl and unsentimental old man, and the touching evolution of their mutual respect.
Complicating matters is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a self-regarding blowhard pursuing Chaney on another matter. The two lawmen table questions of jurisdiction to ride together with Mattie in tow. Their travels take them through unsettled frontier, where you might encounter a bear that turns out to be a man, or a cadaver that turns out to be a viper's nesting place.
Mattie takes it all in dispassionately, dispensing prim moral judgments and viewing justice as an eye-for-an-eye exchange. One-eyed Cogburn, with firsthand experience in such matters, is more jaundiced. LaBoeuf, a dandy whose buckskin fringe would be at home in a circus show, is a vainglorious laughingstock.
Villainous Chaney remains unseen until the end, a nemesis built up by Mattie to the terrifying proportions of a Goliath. When we finally meet the man she has been hunting, it's one of this shrewd film's best jokes. Our heroes carry the day, of course, but the manner in which they get their victory is carefully designed to make us feel conflicted about the whole affair. Retribution comes with a significant loss of innocence.
The actors are exemplary. Bridges bring notes to his character we've never seen from him before. He's tough as saddle leather yet comically pompous, a gene-splice of grizzled Duke Wayne and W.C. Fields. You can believe he spilled a lot of blood -- hesitant men didn't survive to old age in those days -- and that a lot of hard drinking took the edge off danger's toll. Damon is a wonderful sport in a role that undercuts him at every turn. Brolin's turn as the cowardly dope Chaney is delicious, and Barry Pepper as a bandit leader evokes Lee van Cleef, but with a touch of sound leadership and dignity.
The real revelation, however, is Steinfeld, who handles the script's grandiloquent dialogue with ease and steals scores of scenes from her costars. She makes Mattie a force to contend with, a steel-spined proto-feminist hero, and a huge nuisance all at once. Her character is as rich and complex as the film surrounding her. It's one of the best performances of the year in one of the finest American films of this young century.
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