True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen

True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen
A tough-minded, morally ambiguous meditation on justice makes True Grit a terrific movie, but the breakout performance by teenager Hailee Steinfeld is what will be on your mind when it's over. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a tough gal in 19th century Arkansas with an overwhelmed mother and a couple of young siblings to care for after her father is gunned down in front of their homestead.

Striding into town, she haggles with horse traders while raising the funds to hire a bounty hunter ― in this case, a grizzled, drunken U.S. Marshall, in the form of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) ― to track down her daddy's killer. The culprit, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), is wanted in several states under different names, and a different law officer, Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), wants to haul Chaney back to answer for crimes elsewhere.

Unwilling to let Cogburn take her money and run, nor let LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef throughout) take her justice away from her, Ross accompanies the pair on their hunt through wintry woods to track down the fugitive. Bridges, sporting a huge leather eye-patch, patterns his Rooster Cogburn after Karl Childers, the mumbling idiot authored by Billy Bob Thornton in 1996's Sling Blade. His garbled mumbling is nearly incomprehensible, at times, but Bridges effectively projects meaning, if not vocabulary. Matt Damon's LaBoeuf is lighter and more willing to engage Ross (Cogburn treats her like he's being followed by a pathetic puppy), but lacks the "true grit" Cogburn brings to the endeavour ― that is, a willingness to do what's necessary to achieve the rough justice Ross feels is her father's due.

The film ― once again beautifully shot by long-time Coens cinematographer Roger Deakins ― is not, in fact, a remake of the 1969 film that won John Wayne his only Oscar; the Coens have adapted their screenplay from the original novel by Charles Portis. To the Coens, this is Maddie Ross's story (as it is in the novel) and they take her point of view throughout. With the weight of the film on her shoulders, Steinfeld gives a revelatory performance that will take a historical place beside other young breakout starlets like Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls or Anna Paquin in The Piano.

The other major difference, after more than four decades, is that film violence has become tougher, harder and more ambiguous, turf on which the Coens are more than comfortable treading after the likes of No Country For Old Men. It's not a "western" in any traditional sense, but it's one of the best films of the year, featuring brilliant performances and a terrific story that's well crafted by a couple of filmmaking masters. (Paramount)