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Screen Time: Young actress shines in remake of ‘True Grit’

Published 10:19am Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From the opening sequence of the Coen brothers’ most-recent film, it is apparent who really possesses true grit.

It’s not the drunkard, one-eyed U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whose apathy is apparent as he reluctantly pursues the murderer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in a very small role).

It’s not the aloof Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is on Chaney’s trail for the murder of a U.S. Senator in Texas, and also calls it quits at one point and needs to be saved at another.

And it’s not Chaney, a hired hand now working for a band of thugs, who takes off after he knows he is being pursued by the law for at least two killings.

At the age of 14, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) sets out to avenge her father’s murderer (Chaney). She barters with a horse dealer until she reaches a fair price for her father’s ponies and stolen horse, seeks out the “merciless” Cogburn and convinces him to take the job of bringing in Chaney, catches up to Cogburn after he intentionally left without her, and continues after Chaney when Cogburn and LaBoeuf give up.

From beginning to end, Ross never waivers in her display of true grit.

While it isn’t quite the dark beauty you would hope for from directors/writers Joel and Ethan Coen (think more “Fargo” than “No Country for Old Men”), “True Grit” definitely deserves to be mentioned as another Coen brothers success.

The film, which is set in the 1870s, is a remake of the 1969 film of the same name starring John Wayne (which was also littered with stars, such as Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper), and both are screen adaptations of the 1968 Charles Portis novel “True Grit.”

With the Coen brothers, you come to expect a level of well-placed, grotesque violence, and “True Grit” is no different. While the characters are off-beat (again, a Coen trademark), the dark story progresses with a certain level of unpleasantness and doubt. This directing pair is master at giving a linear story complete uncertainty. The story makes it dark, but the characters give it a semi-constant comic relief.

If Jeff Bridges comeback wasn’t complete after his Oscar-winning role in “Crazy Heart,” it is now (and he’s competing against himself at the box office, with “TRON: Legacy” also currently in theaters). His take on Cogburn is at times hilariously nonchalant, but with Bridges, it’s not over-the-top. Cogburn was a Civil War veteran, and if you dig past his callous exterior, Bridges subtly lets you know the character is someone who can still demand respect.

LaBoeuf is another story.

Since starring in the Oceans trilogy, Damon has been well-suited in “doofus” roles, such as his leading role in “The Informant!” and a guest role in several episodes of the television series “30 Rock.” Oddly, it suits him, and he proves that again in “True Grit.”

But the actually 14-year-old Steinfeld, in her first major motion-picture role, may have made her breakthrough.

As Ross, she takes the jabs about her appearance, and quips back without missing a beat. Her timing and chemistry with Bridges, Damon and Brolin are great, and she fits perfectly.

So while she is listed as a supporting actor (for political reasons, I’m sure, as she already has a slew of nominations), she is the person upon which the plot is based and at times she completely takes over.

Maybe the grit extends beyond her character.