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Young star proves her 'True Grit'

POSTED: December 29, 2010 11:08 p.m.

It is a joy to watch an actor embody a role with complete confidence and understanding of the character. You might think I'm referring to the stars and seasoned character actors in "True Grit," which include Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper.

But no, I am writing about 14-year old Hailee Steinfeld, who has previously been in nothing you've seen, yet carries one of the best movies of this year.

All of the marquee names above support Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, whose wit and gumption make her more of a young woman than a girl.

After drunkard and thief Tom Chaney (Brolin) kills Mattie's father, she resolves to seek vengeance. No lawman nor family member will help, so she hires a marshal herself.

Mattie's resolute, poised exterior hides a bloodlust even she would find objectionable if she could somehow view it objectively. She frequently cites the law, but it reveals much that she chooses the meanest, most notoriously violent marshal around, one Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).

We meet Cogburn when he is on trial for killing three brothers during an arrest attempt. That brings his body count to 23, and those are just the men he has killed as a U.S. Marshal. Mattie chooses Cogburn because people say he possesses (say it with me) true grit.

Another imposing lawman is also hunting Chaney, a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Damon) who dresses like a wild West show performer and brags ceaselessly about his Sharp's rifle. LaBoeuf is a Western dandy but obviously a man to be taken seriously.

Cogburn, LaBoeuf and Mattie set off into Choctaw Indian territory in search of Chaney (Mattie and her horse have to ford a river to catch up when the men try to leave without her). They will be fortunate to return with their lives, let alone their wanted man.

Ultimately, each of them will display true grit in one way or another.

Writing/directing duo the Coen Brothers deliver a genuine Western this time rather than the modern revisions of "No Country for Old Men." This film is faithful to the genre and the mythology of the period.

As with all of their films, the understated ending will provoke mixed reactions. But while the delivery might be muted, this film makes a profound statement about the nature of human bondage and the price of revenge, at a time when American movies take vengeance and killing far too lightly.

People will inevitably compare this film to the 1969 Henry Hathaway/John Wayne classic. However, as Mattie might say, I care not to take part in such trifles. You may debate that comparison if you wish, but I am content to say both films are uniquely formidable.

This "True Grit" follows the Charles Portis novel more closely than the earlier film, and while it was certainly influenced by the John Wayne star vehicle, the Coens' impeccable imagery (the opening and closing shots are mesmerizing) and trademark wit create a distinct experience.

Bridges won the Oscar last year for "Crazy Heart," but his Rooster Cogburn might be the more deserving role since he reinvents one of the great characters in American cinematic history.

This is no small feat, but then again, saying Bridges is great is as redundant as saying Da Vinci was creative. The Coens and Bridges are artists of the highest order, nearly equalled in talent by Damon, Brolin and Pepper. Which makes it astounding that Steinfeld towers above them in charisma and strength.

In one brilliantly acted (and written) scene, Mattie's negotiating skills nearly reduce weathered trading post owner Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) to tears. She wields the vocabulary of a lawyer with the instincts of a gunslinger. Steinfeld did her own riding, handles firearms and stands toe to toe with legends, never breaking a sweat except when the role requires it.

"True Grit" is an instant classic, made all the more remarkable for announcing the arrival of a major young talent.

 Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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