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Taking on John Wayne

December 22, 2010 10:50 IST

Jeff Bridges in True GritIn an eye-popping debut that will be remembered for a long time, Hailee Steinfeld, a hot contender for an Oscar nomination for True Grit, plays a 14-year-old who hires a lawman to track down the man who murdered her father.

She rides tall in the movie despite being in the company of highly regarded actors including the Oscar winner Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. The film is directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, who also wrote its screenplay.

The last of the major Oscar nomination contenders this year, True Grit is often discussed as a remake of the 1969 hit Western that fetched an Oscar for John Wayne. But Coen brothers insist while the plot line is same as in the previous True Grit, and both films are based on a well-reviewed novel by Charles Portis, they went directly to the source. Their film is seen through the eyes of the young girl, unlike in the 1969 film.  

Steinfeld was 13 when the film was shot, unlike Kim Darby in the first film who was about 18 when she the shooting had started. And Coen brothers also insist that their film is more of a coming of age adventure than a Western.

Steinfeld's character Mattie Ross persuades the eye-patch-wearing lawman Rooster Cogburn to go after the killer who happens to be a drunken drifter (Josh Brolin). Rooster and the girl are joined by garrulous Texas Ranger (Matt Damon).

The film with the tagline "Punishment comes one way or another" was co-produced by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. Spielberg served as an executive producer on True Grit.

Bridges, who won an Oscar for his role in Crazy Heart last year, reunites with Coen brothers after dark comedy The Big Lebowski. He is also in the lead in the big budget, number one film in North America, Tron: Legacy.

'At first, I did want to know why the brothers wanted to make the movie again,' the actor told LA Times. 'I think it was Ethan who corrected me and said,  "We aren't re-making the movie, we are making the book." '

Bridges said he then read the novel, and realised that this was not going to be the standard Western. 'Because most westerns have that strong silent type,' he explained, 'but he was this loud, boorish guy.'

The film, early reviews have asserted has several powerful performances and is visually strong but some reviewers believe is not as compelling as Coen brothers better known films such as No Country for Old Men and Fargo.

'This wintry work is well played and superbly crafted but hits largely familiar notes, giving it a one-dimensional feel without much dramatic or emotional resonance,' wrote The Hollywood Reporter. 'The solid cast, involving story and intrinsic appeal of the good guy-bad guy Western format should translate into decent mid-range business, with the film's ultimate box office fate heavily dependent upon how it plays for families and young audiences.'

Hailee Steinfeld in True GritSan Jose Mercury News gave the film a warmer welcome: 'For their latest dip into genre filmmaking, the influential duo ... put their unique stamp on a praised novel and a movie classic,' the review declared. 'Grit delivers all the things we've come to expect from a Coen brothers film: a whip-smart screenplay, colourful characters and sequences that are stunningly acted and shot. That it doesn't aspire to be anything more than a frothy bit of entertainment might disappoint some. To them I say: Just get off your high horse and have a little fun. '

Coen brothers are famous for making films for about $30 million, far below the average cost of a Hollywood film and on a peanut budget compared to the $150 million plus movies such as Tron: Legacy. In a career of over 25 years and starting with Blood Simple, they have made 15 films. Just a few of them have failed to recover the cost. Ironically, one of their flops The Lady Killers starred Tom Hanks, one of the most bankable of Hollywood actors.

Hollywood insiders believe that True Grit will have a good, though not a spectacular run, coming close to the $150 million worldwide gross of No Country for Old Men three years ago.

Movie buffs could be comparing the old and new True Grit. Here is one detail they will notice: Bridges wears his eye patch over his right eye, not his left, as John Wayne did.

Arthur J Pais in New York