In which Hannah watches True Grit

We have reached the penultimate Coen – one that I forget exists even more frequently than I forget that No Country for Old Men is a Coen film. And yet in some ways True Grit feels more Coen-y, given Rooster Cogburn’s drunken cantankerousness, Mattie Ross’ unexpected intelligence and ability to handle herself verbally, and their odd-couple partnership.

True Grit is a warmer film than No Country for Old Men – perhaps than any of the Coen’s more dramatic films than Fargo or Miller’s Crossing, with a greater faith in humans and in the world than often comes through. Brutal things happen in this film, sure, and people are liars and murderers, but they are less greedy, calculating and sociopathic than in No Country… Survival is harder in this film and so people are more brutal. But they also help each other out as well.

Coen-isms:

  • Empty Roads? No roads. Just empty space.
  • Terrifyingly bright daylight? Daylight yes. Terrifyingly bright, no. But you can feel the cold in the sunlight on the screen,
  • Incredible Carter Burwell score? Yes. The theme around Burwell weaves is Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, which I know as My Saviour’s Love. Interestingly both sets of lyrics express a joy in faith that Mattie Ross does not seem to have – but also a reliance on other people, which is something that she has to learn.
  • Very realistic violence? Yep, yep, yep. No messing around in this western. And Rooster’s gun battle with Ned and his gang is a wild, tense ride at the end.
  • Extremely black lines delivered straight? This is LaBoeuf’s first meeting with Mattie. They’re both so straightforward about his comment that you almost have to blink twice to realise what he’s saying.

You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements. While I sat there watchin’ I gave some thought to stealin’ a kiss… though you are very young, and sick… and unattractive to boot. But now I have a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.

  • An obsession with odd hair? No.

And pretty great female leads? Well, yes. True Grit is the film that gave Hailee Steinfeld her career, with a great turn as the precocious and upright Mattie Ross. On the surface, this is a film about bringing an outlaw to justice; but actually, it’s a film about Mattie Ross’ coming of age. She starts off tough and defensive, making up for her youth with her wits, continually facing down people who underestimate her – such as Col. Stonewall, with whom she is trading to sell her father’s possessions. ‘Wait a minute, are we trading again?’ he says, almost despairing, as she finishes her dealings with him by buying back one of the hoses he has just bought back from her father.

Mattie is a very smart, very capable, and very independent young lady, but she has her flaws too. She is stubborn, with an inflexible and absolute morality, and she trusts no one but herself. When she speaks with the sheriff about hiring a marshal to pursue Tom Chaney, her attention is captured not by mention of the best tracker, or the most just marshal, but by the most brutal: Rooster Cogburn. Mattie Ross wants justice, but in her determination to make sure that she gets it for the specific crime of the murder of her father, she tips into vengeance. This, combined with her refusal to let anyone take her for a ride on account of her youth and sex – and her consequent refusal to trust – means that her headstrong ways do lead her into trouble, just as she is warned.

But like the female leads the Coens write at their best, she is allowed to be this mixture of a human, just like the men. The men in the film might belittle her at times, but the filmmakers and their film treat her as even-handedly as they do the men. She is punished for her behaviour no more than anyone else is within the dictates of the plot.

Rooster (Jeff Bridges) and LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, and I’d forgotten he was in this) underestimate her as much as everyone else – though Rooster catches on faster, as he watches her ride her horse across a river to catch up with him. And yet they have a point. She should not be going with them: a ride out into the wilderness in winter to capture a outlaw who has no reluctance shooting at people is not something that she is prepared for – nor should she be.

‘I am puzzled by this, why is she here?’

So says the unfortunate Moon, while being grilled about the whereabouts of Ned Pepper

Mattie thinks of herself as equal to any of the adults because she is smart, capable and knows right from wrong. But she is still a child, and sees the world through the eyes of a child, largely in black and white. The complexities of enforcing justice, the necessity of compromising with the world and with others are things she still has to learn. She does not yet have the adult’s ability to step back and face the possibilities and impossibilities of the challenge ahead, to engage with the length of the journey ahead – as Rooster and LaBoeuf do when the trail for Chaney seems to grow cold. Nor does she really grasp what it is to kill a person – witness her cry of triumph when LaBoeuf shoots Ned in contrast to his own calm acceptance (or resignation) about what he’s done.

The interesting question for me, in True Grit, is whether or not Mattie really changes, as she ‘grows up’ in this film. Shooting Chaney, as she does, seems to have fairly little impact upon her – it is swallowed up by her encounter with a snake that overtakes the rest of the film. She seems, based on the epilogue to have remained stubborn, stern and moral – and to have retained her refusal to care about what people think of her. And yet, during the film, her relationship with Rooster and LaBoeuf does change and soften. Despite her inability to understand Rooster Cogburn’s drunken frailties she instinctively trusts him to rescue her from Chaney. More touching is the way that her relationship with LaBoeuf changes after he is wounded. They’re both brain smart, mouthy, determined to have their way – and they seem to gain an appreciation of that in each other. There is a genuine sadness in their parting when he splits angrily with Rooster, and she wants to go with him. She acknowledges that in hiring Rooster to do her bidding she overlooked the value of Chaney’s determination and endurance, which she could not buy from his original course. He acknowledges that she’s more than just a girl to be kissed or spanked, and gives her his respect.

You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.

This is the end of Mattie’s opening voiceover. But what she misses then is the way that this grace is passed on between humans as they experience it. Does she learn it a little during her trip across the river into the wild? It feels a little bit at the end as if she does, as she, Rooster and LaBoeuf each help and risk themselves for the others, overlooking if not forgiving their earlier quarrels as they do. And the epilogue suggests they’ve left their mark on her. It’s probably outside the remit of True Grit to show me if this shift in Mattie goes beyond these two men who save her life and bring justice for her father’s death. But I sure wish I was going to get a ‘What Mattie Ross did next…’

Previously: A Serious Man
Up Next: Inside Llewyn Davis

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