There's something uniquely American about the Coen brothers. Whether they're examining a man's personal breakdown in the midwest with A Serious Man, a kidnapping mystery in Fargo, a mob land war in Miller's Crossing, or two bowlers who just want their rug back, the Coens manage to put a spin on the story that makes it feel like a true American folk tale. Even their adaptation of The Odyssey is filtered through an old-time American lens in O Brother, Where Art Thou? And while they made something of a modern revisionist western with their Academy Award-winning No Country For Old Men, the duo have seen fit to return to the genre, this time with all the proper trappings, with a remake of the 1969 John Wayne film True Grit.
The film opens as Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld in a brilliant performance) recounts the death of her father at the hands of criminal Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). She's vexed by the circumstances and vows to see Chaney hanged for his crime. To this end, she hires notorious US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to lead her to the killer. Before they can set out, a Texas Ranger by the name of LeBeouf (Matt Damon), independently tracking Chaney, joins the party. Together the unlikely trio tromp through undeveloped wilderness in search of a criminal.
Jeff Bridges is having something of a nostalgic year. First he appeared in the underwhelming Tron: Legacy, playing not just one, but two characters from the 1982 cult classic. And now he has reunited with the Coen brothers, whom he last worked with on The Big Lebowski, a cult classic that dwarfs even Tron. However, while it seems like the director of Legacy asked Bridges to ape El Duderino, the Coens are too smart to do anything so obvious. Instead, proving his powers as a master actor, Bridges is at times almost unrecognizable under a leather eye patch, cold stained red nose, and grumbly Southern drawl. As Cogburn he proves himself a far more subtle actor than John Wayne, and also shows that his recent Oscar win for Crazy Heart was no fluke.
However, the true star of the piece is Hailee Steinfeld. As Mattie Ross, she is an iron-willed fourteen year old, able to go toe to toe with hero and villain alike. Her many scenes with Bridges and Damon, not to mention Brolin and the myriad supporting cast (including a brief vocal cameo from Coen favorite J.K. Simmons) show that she is perhaps the most astonishing child talent since Haley Joel Osment first broke onto the scene a little over a decade ago in The Sixth Sense. True, she is a little older now than Osment was when he broke out, but her performance is arguably even more impressive. Given the pedigree the film already has (Bridges and the Coens have both been embraced by the Academy since their last pairing, and Damon and Brolin are no slouches either), it's incredible to see such a young actress steal the limelight away from all of them.
That's not to say the rest is bad. Far from it. Damon is understated as LeBeouf, but he takes his licks (and then some) and proves a worthy foil for Bridges. As LeBeouf he proves to be a man who may be a little haughty, but always comes through in a pinch. Brolin is little more than a guest star, but brings the appropriate intensity to the role. The rest of the supporting cast is often hilarious, and they all sell the world the Coens have set up.
And that brings us back to the ringleaders themselves. The Coens are master filmmakers in a variety of styles, as they've proven again and again (how many of their films, from Raising Arizona to No Country For Old Men are considered at least classics, if not outright staples of modern cinema?), but their last attempt at a remake (the similarly Southern-tinged redo of The Ladykillers) was a rare misstep. Luckily, no such problems plague True Grit, which is able to carve out its own identity without resorting to winking irony. The Coens take their time setting up the world, but the preparation pays off handsomely, as by the time our heroes set off, the audience is fully immersed in their plight. And once again the Coens prove they do violence like no one else: Brief, sharp, and directly to the point.
From the opening frames, we find ourselves in the pair's grip, and by the end, we realize just how moving the whole experience had been. The film is not the Coen's best, nor the best film of the year as some might have assumed (that title is still held in a two-way tie between The Social Network and Black Swan), but it is a mature piece of work by two truly American filmmakers. True Grit indeed.