"True Grit" enters the Oscar race as a faithful Western with heart

Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld are impressive in the Coen Bros.' adaptation of Charles Portis' novel

<p>Jeff Bridges should land his second straight Academy Award nomination for best actor in &quot;True Grit.&quot;</p>

Jeff Bridges should land his second straight Academy Award nomination for best actor in "True Grit."

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Let's get one thing out of the way first: "True Grit" is a clear contender in the best picture race.  Any studios hoping or prophesying to the media that the Coen Bros. and producer Scott Rudin have just delivered a strong commercial player for the holidays are sadly mistaken.  Not only is "Grit" a player, but it's one of the best pictures of the year.

A pretty straightforward adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, "Grit" is told from the p.o.v. of Mattie Ross (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl looking to track down the man who killed her father in cold blood, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Set in 1880's Arkansas, Mattie finds herself recruiting a one-eyed, possibly alcoholic U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (a pitch perfect Jeff Bridges) to bring Chaney to justice.  Along the way, they encounter a quirky Texas Ranger (Matt Damon) who has his own agenda for capturing Chaney and bringing him to face trial in the Lone Star state.   The trio soon find themselves joining forces (sort of) to track down Chaney who is believed to be hiding in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). 

Bridges is arguably better here than in his nuanced Oscar winning turn in "Crazy Heart" and hasn't completely transformed himself for a role this much since the last time he worked on the Coens in "The Big Lebowski" (although some would argue he has more in common with The Dude than you'd have expected, but that's a topic for another day). Making her big screen debut, Steinfeld is impressively confident and composed for such a major role.  She could factor in the best actress race, but winning is a major long shot at this point.  Damon is more than fine as La Beouf bringing comic relief when needed, but making sure his character never veers into a caricature or one-note joke.  He's borderline for the supporting race just because the fourth and fifth slots in that category are so weak.

Directors and screenwriters Ethan and Joel Coen have pulled the reigns back on their trademark stylization, but kept their love for words and humor intact.  "Grit" is a revenge tale, but it's funny and it's emotional.  The Coens could easily have made an even darker and bloodier thriller with this material, but as HitFix's own Drew McWeeny noted during our discussion about the picture, instead the Coens show us that they can still make a movie with heart. And, that moviegoers, is where this new "Grit" finds an emotional hook the 1969 "Grit," which won John Wayne an Oscar, never really had.  The Coens are shoo-ins for the adapted screenplay category and should find themselves in the tight best director race as well.

Cinematographer Richard Deakins continues to marvel, adding another beautiful and at times painterly canvas for longtime collaborators the Coens to work on.  Deakins has been nominated eight times for an Academy Award, but never won.  He'll face strong competition from Matthew Libatique for "Black Swan" and Wally Pfister for "Inception," but now may finally be his time.

Other impressive tech credits include Carter Burwell's beautiful score (one of his best), Mary Zophres period costumes that nicely avoid Western cliche and stellar production design and art direction by Jess Gonchor, Stefan Dechant and Christina Ann Wilson respectively.

And one of the great compliments this writer can give "True Grit" is like fellow contenders, "Black Swan," "Rabbit Hole," "Inception" and "The Kids Are All Right," you can't wait to see it again.

"True Grit" opens nationwide on Dec. 22.
 

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