Thursday, Dec. 09, 2010

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross in True Grit

For the central role of the frontier gal setting out on her own to bring to justice the man who murdered her father, Joel and Ethan Coen could have chosen a valued name brand like Dakota Fanning or Saoirse Ronan. Instead, they cast a 13-year-old in her first big role. Billed a demeaning seventh in the credits behind veteran scene stealers Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, Hailee Steinfeld easily dominates the Coens' faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel that became John Wayne's Oscar-winning showcase in 1969. This version is all Mattie, a tribute to the young actress's ease inside the skin of a 19th century character very different from her. In person, Steinfeld is a striking, smiling, willowy teen who exudes a kind of naive chic. Onscreen as Mattie, she's all business, possessed of a willful poise that first infuriates and then impresses all those hard souls whose help she needs in fulfilling her mission. She delivers the orotund dialogue as if it were the easiest vernacular, stares down bad guys, wins hearts. That's a true gift.