Calvinists Ride Again

‘True Grit’

As True Grit begins, the off-screen voice of its fourteen-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross, tells us that her father was murdered by his hired hand Tom Chaney in an Arkansas town of the 1870s, and that Chaney escaped when no citizen dared stand in his way. The tone of the speech is both ingenuous and determined, and when Mattie declares, with the steeliness of an Old Testament prophet, that the murderer will not go scot-free because nothing in life is free “but the grace of God,” we know that Tom Chaney has earned himself a formidable opponent.

While Mattie speaks we are looking at the crime scene immediately after the violence: the exterior of a boarding house on a dirt road. Mr. Ross’s corpse lying in front of the establishment is only a distant, obscurely perceived shape in the winter evening’s darkness. Slowly the camera travels toward the body, but before it gets there, the fleeing killer gallops across our view, left to right. The camera doesn’t pan with the rider to follow his getaway but continues its steady approach. The movement seems to be telling us to pay the varmint’s escape no mind. Let him go for now—his fate is sealed. Once the corpse comes into close view, it becomes as rocklike as Mattie’s demand for justice. Blood calls out for blood, and this is not the last dead body we will be looking at.

Indeed, throughout the film Mattie will repeatedly leave a scene of carnage, often one brought about by her quest for justice. But on those occasions the camera will speedily pull away from the corpses, not close in on them, as the scene etches itself quickly in the girl’s memory. What is undeniably great about this True Grit, scripted and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, is that, unlike the rambunctious, somewhat cheesy Henry Hathaway–John Wayne 1969 version, it not only lays out Charles Portis’s great yarn dexterously but also takes time to register what is happening inside its heroine’s mind. Mattie’s character, precociously committed to a strict, black-and-white vision of life, won’t be radically altered by her odyssey, but she is undergoing an experience never to be equaled (we later learn) by anything in her adulthood. Making sure that her father’s murder has consequences, she herself becomes a figure of consequence. The details of her adventure in all their eccentricity, squalor, desperation, generosity, cruelty, and natural beauty become part of her mental scrapbook. We are seeing what she will never forget:

• An Indian on a gallows trying to say his last words to the crowd but interrupted by a hood thrust down over his head by the hangman who has just let two other (white) prisoners speak freely.

• The fancy rowels on shiny spurs that signal the cockiness of a young Texas Ranger.

• The crackle of a campfire filling the heavy pauses in a conversation between two reclining men who are learning to hate each other.

• The entire head of a bear worn as a cap by a trapper who opens his mouth to speak...only to sound like a talking bear.

• The “open prairies...wooded limestone hills...bushy bottoms, and icy streams” of the Portis novel, all rendered dazzlingly by cinematographer Roger Deakins in gold, blue, and several shades of brown.

But True Grit isn’t just a collection of picturesque sights and incidents. Mattie’s gun-for-hire and traveling companion through the Oklahoma Indian Territory is Rooster Cogburn, and there is no way a character as upright as Mattie’s can go untested by contact with a nature as louche as his. Their fractious relationship is at the heart of the movie.

Cogburn is the tale’s showpiece, the character best remembered by those who have seen the 1969 film without having read the book. (Readers probably recall Mattie and several minor characters as vividly as they do Rooster.) He is to True Grit what Long John Silver is to Treasure Island: a scoundrel who ultimately serves goodness; a physical wreck, alcohol-soaked and minus one eye, who rises to heroic action; a greedy criminal (he has robbed banks, and he served with Quantrill’s brutal guerrillas during the Civil War) in whom some lonely gene of decency responds to a child’s need. Early in her quest, Mattie asks a sheriff about which mercenary she should hire. He describes Cogburn and two far more virtuous men, and the girl opts for Rooster precisely because he is the meanest cuss available. By no means tolerant of vices little or large, Mattie regards Cogburn as a grimy but useful instrument, while he simply wants the reward she offers. But adventures and hardships clang these opposite natures together and, before the fadeout, Rooster is willing to drive himself to his physical limits to save the girl’s life, while Mattie—in an epilogue eliminated from the John Wayne film—pays her former companion a particularly touching tribute that she would never have dreamed of bestowing before their adventure.

The strengths of the book, the well-knit plot and juicy characterizations, were embedded in its flavorsome language. Reviewers justly compared the first-person narration to Huck Finn’s for its colloquial poetry. All credit then to the Coens for preserving so much of it, some in off-screen narration but much more dispersed throughout the dialogue. To hear an outlaw, taking note of the heroine’s abrasive honesty, say “You do not varnish your opinions” is to enjoy a tangy precision without the slightest hint of showiness.

John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn was an entertaining star turn, with his eye patch and whisky consumption nothing but eccentric glosses on the Duke’s ineffaceable personality. Jeff Bridges gives us an individual utterly unlike anything he has done before: a monstrous, dangerous, occasionally generous man, as weirdly honorable as he is emotionally unstable. The characterization emerges out of layers of physicality: a voice rumbling up from the belly and reaching us through what must be gallons of phlegm; a disarranged body still at ease on a horse but trusting to sheer luck on the ground; a countenance reflecting much low animal cunning and made quirky by too many bad memories.

As the Texas Ranger who joins the quest, Matt Damon continues to impress by not trying to impress. The character’s thoughts and responses flick out at us almost subliminally. As the chief bad men, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper provide an interesting contrast in villainy. The former, as Chaney, is so whiny and self-pitying that Pepper’s bandit chief becomes almost admirable in the businesslike dispatch with which he performs his thievery and killing.

I must be careful while praising newcomer Hailee Steinfeld (thirteen at the time of filming) for her wondrous Mattie. If I had a time machine, I could rocket forward to see if this performance was the first achievement of a real artist or simply a stroke of perfect casting. Having seen her being interviewed, I’m almost convinced it’s the former, because her mannerisms, speech, and gait bear no resemblance to Mattie’s. Whichever is the case, she anchors the entire story. In creating Mattie Ross, Charles Portis yoked the natural candor and vulnerability of a kid with the iron of centuries-old Calvinism enacting itself through the child. Steinfeld manages that duality to perfection and makes it clear that though “true grit” is the stuff the heroine seeks in a mercenary, the title of the film finally defines Mattie herself.


Read our critics' reviews of Oscar-nominated films here.

Published in the 2011-02-25 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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