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Review: Coens deliver beautiful, smart, well-acted ‘Grit’

Jeff Bridges stars as gruff lawman Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”
Jeff Bridges stars as gruff lawman Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”

The pioneering Coen brothers don’t blaze new territory with “True Grit.”

And that’s just fine, pardners, because these highfalutin’ boys sure know how to rassle up one spitfire of a Western.

For their latest dip into genre filmmaking, the influential duo behind “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo” put their unique stamp on a praised novel and a movie classic.

“Grit” delivers all the things we’ve come to expect from a Coens film: a whip-smart screenplay, colorful characters and sequences that are stunningly acted and shot.

The top-notch cast includes three great actors – Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin – who thoroughly deliver on their potential.

But it’s the relatively unknown Hailee Steinfeld – only 13 during filming – who accomplishes the most remarkable feat, sitting as tall in the saddle as the veterans.

Unlike the 1969 film version that landed John Wayne an Oscar for playing gruff lawman Rooster Cogburn, this “Grit” stays relatively true to the 1968 novel by Charles Portis.

The more literal adaptation might put off fans of the Duke, but Steinfeld plays the Mattie Ross part so well, others will be happy she’s so much in the spotlight.

After all, “Grit” is her story, and it begins with a much older Mattie as narrator, recounting her arrival in Fort Smith, Ark., and meeting Cogburn (Bridges). The precocious 14-year-old hires the boozy, trigger-happy U.S. marshal to hunt down her daddy’s killer, Tom Chaney (Brolin).

Cogburn eventually agrees to Mattie’s offer, but he ditches her. Furious she’s been left behind, Mattie catches up with him and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Damon), who is after Chaney for murdering a senator.

The unlikely trio – a Bible-quoting girl, a drunken burnout and a dandy with polished spurs – embark on a risky adventure into “Indian” territory where they learn Chaney has taken up with a gang.

Along the way, “Grit” relies on all the genre cliches: shootouts, galloping horses, nasty snakes and stunning Western landscapes.

But while photography director Roger Deakins, a frequent Coens collaborator, authentically evokes the setting, it’s the performances and writing that breathe life into “Grit.”

Fresh off his win for “Crazy Heart,” Bridges delivers another Oscar-worthy performance. He makes Cogburn a hilarious and foul-tempered eccentric with questionable hygiene.

Damon, in a less showy role, does a terrific deadpan as the rather inept, self-absorbed Ranger. Brolin attempts something different with what could have been a one-note villain, and succeeds even though he’s given little screen time.

But the real star is Steinfeld, who holds her own in each of the numerous bantering exchanges with Bridges and Damon. She shines the brightest in the film’s best scene, shrewdly haggling with a trader (Dakin Matthews) over ponies.

It benefits the young actress that the Coens’ dialogue pirouettes with such a folksy yet graceful cadence. “Grit” might not be the same daring caliber of Western as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” but, man, can its impressive cast shoot off the killer one-liners.