True Grit, written by Charles Portis in 1968, is a plainspoken adventure tale set in the 1880s. It centers on the memories of Mattie Ross, who, as a 14-year-old, hired a dissolute, one-eyed lawman named Rooster Cogburn to find and kill the drifter who murdered her father. The book was first turned into a film in 1969, with Mattie (Kim Darby) relegated to Cogburn’s sidekick, thanks to the unmistakable top-of-the-credits star playing him, John Wayne. In interpreting the part, the Duke sacrificed a lot of crust for a good deal of ham. Country music’s reigning nice guy, Glen Campbell, co-starred as La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger who joins in the search. It was, all an all, pretty clean-cut for a Western.
When Joel and Ethan Coen make a Western, it’s as far from clean as you can get. In their truly gritty, violent, wittier-than-you-might-think, and much-anticipated adaptation (opening December 22), Cogburn is played with greasy bluff by Jeff Bridges (reuniting with the Coens for the first time since The Big Lebowski), La Boeuf by a wisecracking, mustachioed Matt Damon, and Mattie by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.
In the Coens’ version, Mattie is again the driving force of the story, a proper girl from a Christian home—no longer Darby’s pixie but solid and unnervingly tense. Through the course of the film, as Mattie and Rooster hunt down the bad guy (Josh Brolin), they both come of age: She grows up fast, and he faces his demons and the end of his life. Of the 15,000 actresses who auditioned, 13-year-old Steinfeld was the one whose “unusually steely nerves and straightforward manner”—to quote the casting notice—won her the coveted role. “She’s a very poised, clever girl,” says producer Scott Rudin. “She could handle ornate language, which a lot of the kids couldn’t.”
Steinfeld herself is sweet and excitable, with an endearingly goofy chuckle that punctuates her stories—like her description of a typical day on the True Grit set. “We were in some really crazy remote locations,” she says, “and half the time, I was lying in the dirt. There are more pictures of me playing with, like, random rocks in the dirt than any other pictures.”