Dec. 22 2010 12:00 AM

Coen Brothers 'True Grit' hits the mark

Mattie Ross is looking for a man, preferably a man who can find a man. All of 14 years old — but with the self-confidence of a seasoned woman of the world — Mattie has decided to take it upon herself to find and punish the outlaw who murdered her father. Realizing she cant do it alone, she enlists the assistance of grizzled U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn; as an unwanted bonus, Mattie also gets the company of a dutiful, egotistical but slightly dopey Texas Ranger named LeBeouf.

While "True Grit" is often described as a Western, setting aside, its actually closer to a detective story, with the trio wandering through a hostile landscape and putting together clues and shreds of information to find the killer. The comedy that offsets the grimness of the quest comes from the contrasts among these strong personalities. The three may share the same goals, but they have something else in common: None of them can stand his or her partners.

"Youre no bigger than a corn muffin," Cogburn scoffs when Mattie tries to hire him. "You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements," LeBeouf remarks after Mattie treats him rudely. Mattie, as clear-eyed as she is sharp-witted, lets Cogburn know she thinks hes a drunk and tells LeBeouf hes a "rodeo clown."

This is the second screen adaptation of Charles Portis novel. The first, released in 1969, earned John Wayne a best actor Oscar and was very much a showcase for the veteran actor, who had no trouble eclipsing costars Kim Darby and Glen Campbell.

Sumptuously photographed by Roger Deakins and graced with a lovely,
hymninspired score by Cartell Burwell, Joel and Ethan Coens "Grit" hews
much closer to the novel, placing Mattie squarely at center stage. The Coens have also asked a newcomer essentially to carry the picture, a risky mission that Hailee Steinfeld accomplishes with awe-inspiring ease. Not many 13-year-old actresses could comfortably hold the screen alongside Jeff Bridges (as Cogburn) and Matt Damon (as LeBeouf), but Steinfeld never backs down and, even better, she refuses to resort to cutesiness or doe-eyed vulnerability. Mattie is a tough customer with plenty of grit herself, and when she has to boss around men more than twice her age and twice her size they tend to take her seriously.

If Wayne made Cogburn larger than life, a heroic figure hiding inside the shell of a boozy braggart, Bridges plays the character at a noticeably lower pitch.

His Cogburn is a run-down, arguably trigger-happy gun for hire without much moral fiber and with many reservations about having to work with "a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop." Meanwhile, Damon has a grand time playing up LaBeoufs conceited, condescending attitude and his tendency to speak in slogans ("Never doubt the Texas Ranger — ever stawart!").

The dialogue in the Coens screenplay is written in the verbose, sometimes even flowery style of the late 19th century. "When can we leave?" becomes "How long for you to make ready to depart?"; "Stop fighting" turns into "Gentlemen, we cannot fall out in this fashion." Even bad guy Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), when he finds himself on the verge of being captured, muses, "I must think over my position and what may be done to improve it." While the style is slightly jarring at first, the actors relish finding the humor and the poetry in this ornate language; you can practically hear each curlicue trip off their tongues.

True Grit

Opens today at Celebration!Cinema Lansing and NCG Eastwood.