True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

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