It is 1880 and the most terrifying figure to appear on the still wild West’s landscape is a 14 year-old-girl name Mattie Ross. One would think it is the Texas Ranger, or the marauder/thief turned U.S. Marshal, or maybe a Choctaw roaming the territory, or an outlaw gang leader with a band of ruthless and mad-hatted criminals, or surely the infamous cold-blooded murderer Tom Chaney whom Ross is intent on bringing to justice—dead or alive. No, it is an educated, quick-witted, sharp-tongued, strong-willed 14 year-old-girl.
“I aim here to settle my father’s affairs.”
“All alone,” the Sheriff asks Mattie Ross, disbelieving.
“I am the person for it!”
If there are any doubts by anyone Mattie Ross meets, they will be dispelled. Heaven hath no fury like a girl’s righteous determination, especially a girl who proves capable of wielding both God’s law and Man’s with ease.
Hailee Stienfeld is riveting in her role as the terror-inducing Mattie Ross. Even when she is dispassionately composed, smirks tremble about her lips and she emits a bristling intensity. She also possesses a set of the most expressive dark eyes a director can long for. Her performance is honored with the dependably brilliant work of Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and Jeff Bridges who is makes a truly remarkable transformation into U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn.
I marveled at Bridges’ metamorphosis into the guttural speech and rough swagger of the seasoned lawman “Rooster” Cogburn. He recalls John Wayne’s impersonation without being mocking, while fairly claiming the role for his own. Yet Bridges wasn’t completely unrecognizable, the Coen’s would have cast Bridges for the wicked gleam and raw smirk that always accompanies Bridges’ delivery of a particularly cutting line. And there was plenty of wit to dispense.
One of the main attractions of a Western is the sharp dialogue. Beneath the drawl (however cleaned up for theater audiences), the clever exchanges reveal an often disputed intellect, import, and a marvelous sense of humor. True Grit does not disappoint.
It is noticeable how lacking in honeyed drawl Mattie Ross’ speech is. In an industry that has proven successful in guiding their actors in drawls, lisps, and stutters, Steinfeld doesn’t reflect an expectation of a average girl from Yell County, Arkansas. But then, I suppose Arkansas is still East, comparatively. In another Western, one would assume she was educated nearer the East Coast with that cool clipped delivery, and if she had been, she’d have been at some point revealed too delicate/vulnerable in some form or another despite her gutsiest intentions. In Coens’ True Grit, Mattie Ross never lacks grit, even at her most vulnerable. Ross embodies the tough constitution and resilience of a girl born and bred in the West. The Western men certainly seem to claim her as one of their own. She could quite conceivably be a child of both East and West—or perhaps this is a much need re-visiting of the West?
Mattie Ross: If I had killed Chaney, I would not be in this fix; but my gun misfired.
Lucky Ned Pepper: [Chuckling] They will do it. It will embarrass you every time. Most girls like to play pretties, but you like guns do you?
Mattie Ross: I do not care a thing about guns, if I did, I would have one that worked.
LaBoeuf: 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.
Mattie Ross: One would be just as unpleasant as the other
It is not just her drawl lacks sugar. None of Ross’ manipulations are delivered in simpering tones. Quite logically, how would honey really get her what she wants? Especially if she doesn’t want either option men like LaBoeuf are offering.Mattie Ross is one who calculates the worth of an exchange, believing fully that which she proclaims early on. “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” She is a fierce tradeswoman, giving a local businessman nightmares after sweating him out of everything she wants in the deal. That she goes with Cogburn is to assure she is getting her money’s worth, she is paying dearly monetarily to see justice for her father and she is willing to risk even more to see it done. She is relentless and unapologetic.
When LaBoeuf negotiates an alliance with Cogburn, Ross is furious. The men’s deal means Chaney would be taken to Texas for the crimes committed there where the victim was an important man and the reward for capture is “considerable.” She rails against the idea that her father would be so disregarded due to his lack of notoriety (he wasn’t even a local); that his wrongful death, completely unprovoked, shouldn’t matter enough to the law or at all in the face of celebrity. Ross is upset that she must take on the retribution for the sake of her father, but she is not surprised. The West, who is used to improvising and regulating its own sense of fairness is not surprised. The surprise is that a man of Cogburn’s history has sold out to the establishment (the organized outfit of the Texas Ranger in this case). Yes, Bridges has himself another role as one who is known to stick it to the man. We learn that Cogburn has been a bank robber (though not of citizens), and he rode with Quantrill (arguing he didn’t kill women and children). The retribution had been misunderstood. And because LaBoeuf cannot understand, their alliance is forfeit.
Law versus Vigilantism a time-honored discussion in the Western. Who stands for the victims: the women and children and wronged men? Who sees to the injustices? Mattie Ross is an unusual figure in this landscape, and where she might flirt with the Law (LaBoeuf), Cogburn is the father figure. We find all three trying to find their own way within the laws that govern them: LaBoeuf (Government), Cogburn (West/territory), and Ross (God). Regardless of what laws they’ve chosen, or who’s Will they invoke, no one in True Grit (or elsewhere) escapes the notion that everything comes with a price. Those with “courage and resolve; strength of character,” grit*, seem to understand this. “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another.” Mattie Ross not only responds incredible resolve, we find her to have show incredible grace by the end of the film.
True Grit is necessarily stocked with characters full of grit, lawman or no, girl or man or horse. The character who anchors the story, who exemplifies grit, however, is never in doubt in Coens’ filming of Charles Portis’ story. The camera lens honors Mattie Ross’ stature, and remembers who is telling this story. The bigger men are carefully placed, further down an incline or bent over to mind that the camera is over her shoulder or upon her face, that she needs to occupy a healthy portion of the screen. She is rarely peripheral. And we are looking her straight in the face whether she is facing forward or looking up or down and away.
Ross’ resolve is rewarded, but not without considerable risk, and considerable loss. She is marred and no longer whole–at least physically. I am not sure if the physical is to echo the internal ramifications of her actions, but I think the supposition is fair. But Ross is relentless. A force to be reckoned with, still possessing of poise and good humor. On a hill of one lone tree and some headstones, and the memories of the long since disappeared, she honors those who informed her. Afterward, Ross walks away, not West into the sunset that is sure to be glorious, but East into the rising, a slender figure in black, alone and erect. She still has the ability to terrify the viewer. She holds the gaze. She is a force of will. She still has true grit.
*”grit” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary.
True Grit (2010)
Director/screenplay: Joel & Ethan Coen
Based on True Grit by Charles Portis
Editing by Roderick Jaynes
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin, Steven Spielberg
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
Running time 110 minutes.