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6th March 2011

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With this remake of the 1969 John Wayne classic, the Coen brothers pay loving homage to the old-school American western while tinting it with darker shades. The title refers to Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, a boozy, gruff and trigger happy US marshal played with relish by a swaggering Jeff Bridges.  He is hired by spunky 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to hunt down her father’s killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled to the lawless Indian Territory and joined a gang of outlaws. They are soon joined in their pursuit by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is after Chaney for another crime, and the three join forces to catch their man.

Although it is Cogburn who is famed for his ‘true grit’, it is gutsy heroine Mattie who rightly deserves this description, never wavering in her quest for retribution. Newcomer Steinfeld loudly announces her arrival, delivering an intelligent, flinty and likeable portrayal of the headstrong youngster bent on vengeance, while colouring the performance with an appealing underlying vulnerability. Mattie is the real emotional core of the film and Steinfeld more than fills this role with her captivating screen presence.

Bridges and Damon, meanwhile, provide a memorable and entertaining double act as the bickering men of the law.  As the tough, whiskey swigging US Marshall, Bridges slurs, curses and shoots his way through the action with a sort of boyish delight. His spirited portrayal of Cogburn is one of the highlights of the film, though he is at times dangerously close to a cartoon caricature and his speech is occasionally lost in his drunken Southern drawl.  Damon’s LaBoeuf provides a welcome contrast as a strutting, arrogant figure with some brilliantly delivered put-downs and a pair of rather questionable sideburns. This may not be remembered as one of the great performances of Damon’s career but it might just be the most fun.

It is the stunning images of the rugged American landscape that make as much of an impression as the accomplished performances, with the cinematography forming a sort of love affair with the wild prairie backdrop. A gorgeous patchwork of sunsets, jagged mountain silhouettes and snow-scattered ground, True Grit is a visual feast. Complete with symbolic imagery and a couple of bizarre Coen brothers’ twists, this film manages to elevate an engrossing adventure story just that one step higher to something really quite special.

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