A star is born.
In her first starring role in her first feature film, Hailee Steinfeld owns "True Grit."
From its very first moments, she owns it with authority, owns it with confidence, owns it with an expertise that would have you think she’s been doing this sort of thing for more years than she’s been alive. She’s 14.
She owns the picture despite the fact that her co-stars are Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin. Top talents, all of them. But with the exception of Bridges, none holds a candle to her in terms of submerging themselves deep into their characters.
And Mattie Ross is quite a character. Just 14, she’s a frontier girl out to bring the man who gunned down her father in the streets of Fort Smith, Ark., to rough justice. That man, Tom Chaney (Brolin), is a coward and a thief, and Mattie intends to see that he’s caught and hanged. And she’ll move heaven and Earth to get her way.
Charles Portis, author of the 1968 classic Western novel on which this latest picture from the Coen Brothers is based, wrote Mattie as a hardheaded, fearless and fearsomely determined girl who can outbargain, outthink and outlast any and every adult who tries to dismiss her or knock her off her single-minded course. Steinfeld embodies all those qualities in a manner that Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the 1969 version of the tale, never did. Steinfeld brings a flinty authenticity to her performance. She truly possesses true grit.
Whether striking a hard and favorable bargain with a bewhiskered old horse trader (hard on him, favorable to her), recruiting curmudgeonly, slovenly, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to be her manhunter or drawing down on her father’s killer with a heavy-duty horse pistol, the kid is a bulldozer in long braids.
Plus which, she’s articulate, eloquent and even a touch poetic in the dialogue department. Every other character in the movie shares those particular qualities with her, and that’s the movie’s greatest glory.
Even more so than they did with their Oscar-winning adaptation of “No Country for Old Men,” writer- directors Joel and Ethan Coen have captured the gist and the flavor of their source material with faithful, flawless accuracy. The book’s distinctive, deliberate Old West cadences and locutions are vividly present in the Coens’ “Grit.” Small wonder. The brothers have placed great chunks of Portis’ flavorful dialogue in the mouths of their movie’s characters. And you can tell that the actors are reveling in the banquet, Bridges in particular. He delivers his lines with the slurry sound of a man talking with his mouth full, as though he greedily crammed his gob to overflowing with Portis’ words and is happily chewing each and every one.
Bridges is having a total ball playing Cogburn. When John Wayne took on the role in 1969’s “True Grit,” giving a performance that finally won him the Academy Award, he was John Wayne in an eyepatch. He too spoke Portis’ words, but they didn’t sound quite natural coming from him. Bridges makes Portis’ dialogue his own. He is Rooster Cogburn.
The vanity, the garrulousness, the querulousness, the drunkenness: they’re all present in his performance. Also the deadliness. That latter trait appears now and again as though emerging from ambush, banishing the drunken bleariness from his one good eye and replacing it with a hard and pitiless glare.
Playing Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, a bit of a dandy in his fringed buckskins and ostentatious spurs, Damon gives a performance that’s occasionally as wispy as his thin mustache. The character is kind of a third wheel in the story, a disapproving foil to Mattie and Rooster, and Damon does the best he can to make him dimensional, with modest success. (That said, at least his work is stronger than Glen Campbell’s in the 1969 version.)
The hunt for Chaney takes the trio across an austere Western landscape. Bleached, rough and forbidding, it’s rendered with an unvarnished beauty by director of photography Roger Deakins.
The 1969 Wayne version of “True Grit” is a very good movie. The Coens’ version is a masterpiece.
* * * * *
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper
Running Time: 1:50
Rating: PG-13; violence, language