True Grit Director: Joel and Ethan Coen Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld ****
A novel with feminist overtones from 1968 gets rescued from the legend of John Wayne in this sumptuous and elegant western from the Coen brothers. Here, after following their award-winning No Country for Old Men with the sombre failure A Serious Man, the Coens are back in Oscar mode again with True Grit. The fraternal filmmaking duo have repeatedly claimed that this movie, which follows the exploits of a 14-year-old avenger called Mattie Ross (Steinfeld), is not a remake of the classic 1969 Wayne movie, but rather a direct and original adaptation of the previous year's Charles Portis novel upon which Wayne's movie was also based.
And yet, as the movie unspools, and as the precocious Ross hires an ornery US marshal called Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) to head into "Indian territory" and find her father's killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), what strikes you is not how radically different it is from past Western traditions, but just how strictly it obeys their conventions.
Thus, gorgeously shot widescreen vistas abound (courtesy of Texas, New Mexico, and the eight-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins), as Cogburn accepts Ross's commission and begins that old Western staple, the chase (see The Searchers). Along the way, Ross and Cogburn are joined by a handsome and self-satisfied Texas ranger called LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is also pursuing Chaney. The threesome have adventures, they cross a swollen river, they are involved in a gun battle at a midnight hideout and, ultimately, all narrative pressure is released in a last-act showdown between the valiant and foolhardy Cogburn and four renegade outlaws - in a scene that is a virtual shot-for-shot copy of the Wayne version.
Westerns fans, typically, will be overjoyed at the patient homage to their world. But the Coens too, and true to their word, have added some signature touches to the work. Ross, especially, is the kind of fast-talking heroine that repeatedly pops up in Coen movies, such as Burn After Reading or Intolerable Cruelty. An early scene, in which she verbally batters into submission a patronising horse-trader, is a masterful study in rapid-fire badinage and fierce bon mots. It helps, too, that all the characters speak in a very precise quasi-Biblical argot that adds to them the appearance of historical distance and genuine period detail.
This Ross, of course, is not just an archetypal Coen heroine, but the one true point of departure between the two adaptations. Hugely intelligent, unafraid of violence and prepared to use a handgun that's almost the size of her forearm, she is a quietly resilient feminist heroine.
And the real trick of the movie, and the reason it has caught the imagination of movie-goers - $160 million (Dh587m) at the box office - and awards season voters alike, is that it shifts the focus of bravery from Cogburn to LaBoeuf and finally to Ross. This 14-year-old girl, it says, by the closing credits, is really the one with true grit. She's a girl in a man's world, but playing the men at their own game. And winning.