Early critical response to Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, a faithful adaptation of Charles Portis’s western novel, has been mostly positive, yet many mask their praise with trepidation. Critics have rightfully celebrated the film’s technical prowess and classical feel, so most of their skepticism boils down to one issue: That True Grit is decidedly “minor” in tone, theme, and ambition and a strange thematic bedfellow in the overall Coen oeuvre. This is a simplistic assertion that’s grown more problematic in my eyes with each viewing of True Grit, a spirited cinematic poem on the toll of growing old, the joys of nostalgic memory, and the deep melancholy of lost friendship. Furthermore, who’s to say one film is “minor” and another “major,” especially when an auteur’s fingerprints can be spotted on every inch of the screen?
All of the Coens’ films hinge on the tensions between lineage and mortality, beginning with manic pursuit of hallowed family structures (Raising Arizona), the deceit and betrayal of father/son dynamics (Miller’s Crossing), the fringe groupings of misfit families (Big Lebowski), and the failures to protect one’s kin from evil (No Country For Old Men). True Grit, while seeped in western conventions and ornery dialogue, is about this very same dichotomy. If anything, the Coens’ refocused concern with the retribution of murdered siblings, parents, and even pets makes True Grit a masterful culmination of these themes, and in no way “minor.”
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, in her incredible screen debut), the 14-year old tornado at the center of True Grit, shows both a keen business sense and unflinching persistence in provoking the adult men around her into action. She defies both her gender and age and demands revenge for her murdered father, killed by simpleton drunkard Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who felt he was cheated in a business deal. The result of this crime is seen in the hypnotic opening long take of True Grit: Mattie’s adult voice echoes over a dazzling showcase of shadow and light, Roger Deakins’s camera blurring falling snow and slowly moving in to focus on the silhouette of a dead body, followed by the sound of a departing horse’s hooves on the soundtrack. Despite the scene’s grim nature, Mattie’s musings are neither frantic nor pessimistic, but incredibly devout in the nostalgia and purpose of retelling a key event in her family history. This is her story, told from the perspective of a girl at a crucial generational crossroads, part symbolic bible passage, part darkly textured requiem, all western.
While collecting her father’s worldly possessions at Fort Smith, Mattie’s heightened point of view becomes essential to the idea of fractured and sublime memory. Arriving on the train, Mattie scans the skyline of an evolving civilization slowly coming to life, reminiscing through voice-over that “Nothing is free in this world, except by the grace of god.” It is immediately clear she understands the magnitude of her situation, that her quest to find and kill Chaney has an ideological weight. Mattie soon bears witness to a triple hanging that both foreshadows the verbose nature of her journey and the sudden violence around the corner. Finally, in one of the few interior set-pieces, Mattie listens carefully to the feisty testimony of grizzled U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) detailing his latest fugitive pursuit as a lawman. Mattie’s perception of progress, justice, and the law establishes the conventions and themes of the western, but also deepens the experience of a child putting herself in unknowable danger.
As a hero’s journey, True Grit is both exciting and staid, flushed with gripping tension and trail banter. It’s a narrative almost entirely dependent on the moods of it’s adult heroes, namely the often drunk Cogburn (the film’s most inconsistent scenes), who Mattie hires to track and apprehend Chaney, and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a poised lawman with his own motivations prone to long-winded but charming exhalations of western codes and frontier life. Mattie sees both men as extensions of her own vengeance, yet each iconic figure can’t help but take on a parental duty for the girl in the dangerous Indian territories. Early on, Labeouf spanks Mattie with a switch for cracking wise. Late in the film, he takes her hand before departing, softly admitting, “You’ve earned your spurs.” It’s one of the film’s most loving moments, and an excellent defense against those critics who consistently bring up the Coens’ sinister impulse to torture their characters. Rooster’s relationship with Mattie is far more elemental, witnessed in still-life as the two wait quietly on horseback in the snow for an approaching rider, from extreme low angle in Rooster’s descent down a dark shaft to rescue the young girl from slithering evil, and finally in widescreen through their long and windy rush for salvation under the starry sky.
The Coens infuse True Grit with bits of their patented strangeness (the primitive dentist in a bearskin comes to mind), but their focus isn’t on the absurd or the screwy. They strive for potent iconography and achieve this through the nuances of their period detail, the subtle shifts in Carter Burwell’s soulful score, and vacillations of mood in Deakins’s expressive cinematography. But everything comes back to the violent defense of a threatened family tree. Throughout the film, there are references to Rooster’s deadly exploits, killing outlaws and by circumstance their criminal family members. It’s a key telling point the villains use to validate their own revenge against him. LaBeouf’s pursuit of Chaney hinges on the murder of a State Senator caused by the shooting of the family dog, further instilling the idea that no family trauma can go unpunished. Still, the focus is always on Mattie and her impassioned words, as she often references her “indecisive” mother and helpless siblings with a strong, resolute smile, as if to say their protection and survival are her only goals. Through her naïve and invigorated eyes, the entire bloody affair has a rosy sheen of romanticism, even during its darkest moments.
So it’s fitting the sun-drenched aura of True Grit ends with a flash-forward to the cold dying days of the old west, when men like Rooster and LaBeouf were commercialized for mass consumption. During this stirring epilogue, the now-grown Mattie’s voice, perspective, and views on her family, extended or otherwise, never change, and if anything have grown more fundamental and wise with the passing years. Mattie has succeeded in retaining the best of those honorable principles gained from a more turbulent, male-dominated time, where she both lost her innocence and earned the respect of men with guns. In the end, living such a wounded and isolated life ultimately leaves her alone at the top of a rainy hill, proudly remembering the grit that forever bound her childhood with the core elements of the west. “Time just gets away from us,” she frankly states in the final moments, not an ounce of regret or remorse detectable in her voice. For western characters like Mattie, honor doesn’t necessarily beget happiness. This tough realization lingers on the cold wind as she walks alone into the distance, not a hero, a wife, or a daughter, but a women at peace with her costly actions.