January 02, 2011

MOVIES: True Grit (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2010)

The Coen brothers' version of True Grit -- they insist that it's not a remake of the John Wayne movie, but a new movie that returns directly to Charles Portis' novel as its source material -- is an entertaining movie, elevated to must-see status by a spectacularly good performance from Hailee Steinfeld.

Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, whose father has been murdered by a drunken thug, and who sets out to see the killer brought to justice. She hires U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, growling his lines in a mumble that is all too frequently incomprehensible), and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who has been pursuing the man for his own reasons, joins the hunting party.

I can't overstate how good Steinfeld is; it's a ferocious performance, and she handles the oddly stilted dialogue so perfectly that it never sounds awkward. Mattie is an unusually poised young woman, but Steinfeld never lets you forget that she is only 14, or how hard she's fighting to be taken seriously in a world that doesn't have much patience for women or children.

Damon is also entertaining in what is the most broadly comic of the principal roles, and there are some lovely small performances -- Ed Corbin as a traveling dentist, Dakin Matthews as a horse-trader who can't quite believe he's being out-negotiated by a girl -- but it's Steinfeld's movie from start to finish, and she is all the reason you need to see it.

A moment, if I may, to rant about the Oscars and category fraud. Steinfeld is the star of True Grit. She is in every scene of the movie; it is her story being told; hers is undeniably the leading role. And yet, in a bit of complete absurdity, she is being campaigned in the supporting actress category, mostly because younger actresses are traditionally assigned there, regardless of the size of their role. (Keisha Castle-Hughes' nomination for Whale Rider was a rare exception to the rule.)

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