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True Grit (15)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin

The screen discloses a lamplit porch on which the snow is falling, and before which a dead man is lying on the ground. As the camera approaches, with reverential slowness, a voice begins: "People do not give it credence that a young girl would leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood, but it did happen." The camera steals closer as Mattie Ross explains how Tom Chaney shot her father and took off with his horse and two gold pieces. We hear the rumble of thunderous hooves in the distance and a desperate horseman gallops between us and the dead man. The girl ends her speech over a shot of Chaney riding onwards, silhouetted against a dark blue sky: "There is nothing free in this world," she concludes, "except for the love of God."

It's a fantastically effective opening, economical with the facts, and a perfect introduction to Ms Ross, played by the awesomely talented Hailee Steinfeld. Fourteen years old, her hair in pigtails that look as though they've been yanked tight to exclude inconvenient femininity, she radiates confidence. Many of her pronouncements are backed by the threat of action from "Lawyer Daggett" whom we never see. Her conversation is full of long words – "affidavit", "braggadocio" – and abstruse legal terminology; this is a 14-year-old who can debate the distinction between malum prohibitum and malum in se. She is bizarrely precocious, both in knowledge and in taking no crap from grown-ups.

Eyes shining with the discovery of her own power, she wipes the floor negotiating with a horse dealer. When the bumptious Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) tells her he'd been thinking of stealing a kiss, but now he'd happily give her a spanking, she replies that either course of action would be as objectionable as the other. She is every inch a heroine, even if there aren't many inches to her. She's a force of nature, even if the words "proper" and "little" and "madam" hang around her like a necklace. Ms Steinfeld lets us see the exultant teenager and glimpse the vulnerable child within.

The marshall whose help she enlists is Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, an ageing, saddle-sore, one-eyed, hard-drinking, chain-smoking roustabout who became a marshall eight years before, probably because it legitimised his fondness for shooting people – 23 of them, as a court attorney discovers, when Cogburn is giving evidence at an inquest. Our first sighting of Jeff Bridges, in a role that suits him like a second skin, is in the dim, foggy courtroom, full of greybeards in black coats; he is uncomfortable, seated in a chair rather than on a horse, the strap of his eyepatch arrayed across his forehead like a questioning eyebrow. He is uncomfortable answering questions about his behaviour or his right to shoot first.

Ross and Cogburn, two strong, ungovernable spirits, are the soul of True Grit, the Coen brothers' sparkling adaptation of Charles Portis's 1968 novel. It's not, they've said, a re-make of the 1969 movie for which John Wayne won his only Oscar; it's a return to the source. They've added scenes, dropped scenes, enhanced the dialogue and kept the book's ending, when Mattie goes in search of Rooster, 25 years after their adventures. You can look in vain for signs that they're sending up the Western genre. Instead, they've emphasised its virtues: action, directness, decency-under-stress.

When Rooster tells the girl about the time he faced down seven horsemen by riding straight at them with blazing pistols, she says "I admire your poise," as though congratulating a ballet dancer. Mattie shows her determination in crossing a rushing river on a tiny horse to join Rooster and LeBoeuf in Indian country. There's a nasty killing and its tense aftermath in a log cabin. Unpleasant things await a girl in Indian country – knives, snakes, hanged men, killers with powder burns, grotesque villains. When Lucky Ned Pepper threatens to stove in Mattie's face with his boot, the Coens position the camera right under his (Barry Pepper's) face to get the best view of his weaselly teeth and drooling spittle.

The climax of the earlier film was the four-against-one shootout. In this version, it's the long ride on which Rooster takes Mattie to save her life. As they traverse miles of country, as the horse slathers with sweat and is stabbed into riding on, as the stars appear overhead, we gaze at the girl and at Cogburn's face behind her. It's intensely moving. He has become her father-protector and a most unlikely saint, riding – and then stumbling – into mythology.

There's a slightly boring dip into surrealism in the second reel, when the characters are wandering in Indian country; inconsequential encounters (one with a hairy dentist wearing a full bearskin) are made worse by Cogburn's ramblings about his past, in which it's hard to make out a coherent sentence. And you don't want to miss anything in this brilliant script. Even in throwaway conversation, the characters use words as though they're steeped in Latin and Shakespeare. "Ah do not entertain hypotheticals!" shouts the horse dealer whom Mattie runs rings around. "Why have you been ineffectually pursuing Chaney?" Mattie asks the fuming LeBoeuf. "I am sorry you have been eluded by a halfwit." This prairie rhetoric, this cowboy music, is a joy of the film, as much as the actual music by Carter Burwell – a series of variations on the gospel song "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms", which was, of course, sung by both the villain (Robert Mitchum) and the heroine (Lillian Gish) in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter.

The Coen brothers have brought their best resources to the movie. It's photographed by Roger Deakins, who shot O Brother, Where Are Thou? The production is designed in mahogany-and-cream by Jess Gonchor, who designed No Country for Old Men, and the costumes are by Mary Zophres, of Catch Me If You Can. Together they've created a true work of visual art, as stylish and confident as Mattie Ross herself. At an uncertain time for heroes in America, there's no wonder it's packing 'em in.