Words On Film: True Grit

If you haven't already seen True Grit, the Coen Brothers remake of the 1969 John Wayne western classic, go see it immediately. Before I start discussing anything that may spoil plot points, I will say that this is a must-theater-see type of film. Whether you like westerns or not, or the Coen Brothers, True Grit is a beautifully shot cinematic experience, and a vividly constructed world that feels alive in its own right on screen. This is the Wild West, but it feels real here, rather than like a nostalgic, pseudo-re-hashing of historic events. Even for waiting to see this film until it comes to "video," it's a must see, but really, just see it.

Now the spoiler parts. (If'n you're not making haste to know, complete your readin' and turn 'round now.) In a sort of traditional Coen Brothers way, True Grit is a film about the experiential impact of the journey, rather than the goal or prize. That's part one, but that wasn't the surprising part. As Mattie Ross (played fantastically well by Hailee Steinfeld) goes from revenge seeker to happy adventurer/daughter figure, the transition all hinging on (Jeff Bridges') Rooster's admission that their trail on Tom Chaney had gone cold, we discover that the movie isn't about what it says it is. Starting with the opening voice-over, which was unnecessary but adequately set a scene (the emphasis being on that a), we are consumed by Mattie's quest to find and kill Tom Chaney. The girl's goal fills the first half of the film. But, when she and Rooster, and occasionally Texas Ranger La Beouf (a phenomenal Matt Damon) set out, the film becomes less about revenge and more about a young girl taking notes on life from a man who has probably nearly lost as many lives as he has lived. The revenge story, in short, turns into a father-daughter story.

While, yes, Rooster maintains a certain distance, he also speaks frankly and openly about his history to Mattie. The notable scene where they ride through the snowy forest, and Rooster tells tales of his wives and children, is a big key here. He's not just a drinker and a gunslinger, and a sharp-tongued lawman. He's also a complex, lonely sonovabitch. That's where Mattie starts to admire him. She sees the layers that he has hidden, and it is a commentary on the world of men (one that the West stands as a proxy for in the genre) that is supposed to be emotionless, and tough. And the conflict, originally finding Tom Chaney, turns on its head to "can Rooster hold it together?". Rooster's cornbread shooting spree is that moment. He's old, he knows it, but he's got pride. And that's the emotion that drinking can let him show with La Beouf around.

It's all pride really. Mattie packages it as revenge, but True Grit is about pride. Mattie's is hurt by Chaney's killing her father and she seeks to right it. Rooster's is hurt by his growing older, and the fact that he's not close to anyone, not really. La Beouf has pride in his station (as a Ranger) and in his Sharps rifle. And Chaney, well, Josh Brolin is great, but Chaney isn't really important. He's the bad guy, but for these characters, the real bad guy isn't a person, it's ethereal. And that's never more apparent than with how easily Chaney is dispatched. Mattie's rifle shot, that propels Chaney off the bluff, is the last climax, all of which are individual. (Rooster charges "Lucky" Ned Pepper is one, La Beouf's shot from 400 yards is two.) And then, there's no savoring the accomplishment, because life isn't that kind. Instead, Mattie is snake bit, and Rooster's fatherly instinct, his love, the pride that he holds that is now attached to Mattie, that takes over. And he saves her at great expense to his strength.

Look at the definition of grit as a personality trait. This is the title of the movie, but also the WHOLE point of the movie. All of these characters persevere, and all of these characters need achievement. And that need is largely and almost completely detached from the revenge plot line. Because it's a barren, untamed world and the three protagonists are lone wolves who also need a pack. Really, even the bad guys, Pepper's gang, and Chaney, et al., are relatively kind people. They're rough and they need pals, but they'd just as soon not kill a little girl, or get into a fight. They'd rather run. They're human. It's flaws and a pride and the battle between the two. And in the end, we get another voice over, this one even more stark and questionable, that wraps things up. While I didn't care for it, it serves a function I didn't notice initially. Grit doesn't mean the power to persevere over death. That's the first one. (But, since the film is bookended by losses in Mattie's life, and she's always marching on, she has the titular true grit, perhaps.) And Mattie truly loves Rooster. That's two. The pride they earned together, the pride they share never dies, but they will.

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