Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men) have created their most mainstream film in True Grit, an adaptation of the 1968 Western novel by Charles Portis. The story, set in 1800s Arkansas, was previously adapted in a 1969 film starring John Wayne -- in his only Oscar-winning role.
Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who undertakes a quest to avenge her father's death at the hands of a drifter named Tom Chaney (Milk's Josh Brolin). Ross persuades an alcoholic U.S. marshal known as Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to join her in tracking Chaney down. He wants to go solo, but feisty Ross insists she go along. They are also joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants to take in Chaney for other crimes. The trio face danger and surprises on the journey -- truly testing their "grit."
Bridges proves that his Oscar win last year for Crazy Heart was no fluke -- he nails the gruff, but lovable Cogburn. And Damon (Hereafter) also successfully showcases his great range -- he really can do both comedy and drama. But it's Steinfeld who steals the movie in a perfect casting coup. The Academy will surely recognize her talents when the Oscar nominations are announced next month.
Although I never read the novel -- and don't recall seeing the original film -- this newer version may be less of a straight remake than some would think. Ethan Coen has been quoted as saying the film is a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the 1969 version: "It's partly a question of point-of-view. The book is entirely in the voice of the 14-year-old girl. I think [the book is] much funnier than the movie. They lost a lot of humour in both the situations and in her voice. It also ends differently than the movie did. Another way in which it's a little bit different from the movie — and maybe this is just because of the time the movie was made — is that it's a lot tougher and more violent than the [original] movie reflects." (Source: IGN)
To sum up -- even if you're not usually a fan of Westerns, this film should not be missed. And if you've had trouble with the Coen Brothers' quirky writing and directing in past films, no worries here. There's no confusion as to what happens -- from start to finish. It's just a great American story -- dramatic, funny, touching and adventurous. And you'll witness the making of a new star in Steinfeld. [Rated PG-13; opens later today]
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- Coming soon: a review of Gulliver's Travel.