So here we are. Mattie has set out to avenge the death of her father, to achieve “retribution,” and this is where it has gotten her: pinned down atop a rocky outcropping with a knife to her throat held by the very man who killed her father. She is surely done for.
At the beginning of Act III of True Grit, Mattie Ross is all alone. She has hired a bad man to track a bad man, thinking that the rightness of her cause makes up the difference between Tom Chaney and Rooster Cogburn. Mattie’s sense of rightness, or of righteousness, is, in a way, the only thing she has going for her. If she passionately loved her father, she has never shown that. If she is truly religious, she has a funny way of expressing it. It seems to me that she is the sort of person who believes herself to be right because God is on her side, and that God is on her side because she believes it to be so. (And she has money.) And even though she is a Presbyterian, she sees no problem with bringing Old Testament-style “retribution” down upon her enemies. She’s seen men murdered from a sniper’s nest and has seen one man shot in the face and another stabbed through the heart (after having his fingers chopped off), and none of it has affected her. She’s placed her faith in a man who is a killer, a drunk and a cheat, and he has failed her, leaving them both lost in a savage, lawless world. But at no time has she ever doubted the rightness of her course.
So, Rooster has planned an ambush at the cabin, and now LaBoeuf, who we’ve been seeing so far as a threat to Mattie’s goal of retribution, returns not as a threat but as a witless buffoon.
Mattie and Rooster arrive at The Original Greaser Bob’s cabin, wedged in the notch of a valley to find it already occupied. Rooster puts Mattie to work stopping the cabin’s chimney, to smoke the men out. Rooster tells the men inside that he is with Columbus Potter and five other men.
(In the novel, Columbus Potter was Rooster’s only friend, and Rooster’s decrepit condition could be said to be a reflection of his grief over the loss of his friend.)
Faithful reader Bob Glouberman writes:
It seems to me that LaBoeuf isn’t auditioning for the role of father but for the role of suitor, and spurned suitor at that. He is constantly trying to impress her so he can steal a kiss from her. When he showed her his star on their first meeting he was trying to impress her as a suitor not as a father. And when he spanked her, he did so more as a peer and spurned lover. When he leaves Mattie later in the movie, it’s a scene of lovers leaving each other for the last time. If he’s auditioning for the role of father, it’s a creepy molesting kind of father.
I see what Mr. Glouberman is getting at here, although if LaBoeuf wishes to be lover to a 14-year-old girl, and demonstrates his love by whipping her with a stick, he’s got a whole other set of problems.
On the other hand, perhaps he’s right. Perhaps both LaBoeuf and Rooster are auditioning for the honor of Mattie’s hand. Although if they are, Rooster isn’t trying very hard – he’s cagey, inward, egotistical and disinterested. Not to mention about 45 years too old for her. Which, hey, is exactly what some girls look for in a man.
Every serious Western, from Stagecoach to Unforgiven, asks the question “What kind of a nation are we?” The genre is, of course, ideally suited to this. It’s the first genre to be invented in the US, and it speaks most purely to the “soul,” as it were, of America. In the Western, the nation is still new, the frontier is open, it’s all up for grabs, and things aren’t yet settled. The genre can, and does, say many different things about the US. A Western can laud American ideals, it can mourn the closing of the frontier, it can stand up for law and order, it can protest against tyranny, it can champion the little guy, it can indict mob mentality, it can celebrity individuality, it can condemn genocide, it can explore race relations. Americans watch Westerns, I think, in order to learn about who they are. The Old West is a land where everything is still possible.
(What the Western says depends, of course, on who is doing the telling and what they’re trying to say about the time in which they’re making their movie. High Noon isn’t about the Old West, it’s about McCarthyism.)
Mattie has approached Rooster Cogburn about pursuing Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, into the wilderness of the Choctaw Nation. Rooster has turned her down, but that doesn’t mean much to someone like Mattie.
On her way back to the boarding house, she finds a mysterious, vaguely threatening stranger waiting for her. He glowers at her from the porch, then camps out in her bedroom. This turns out to be LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who is also looking for Chaney, who, in addition to killing Mattie’s father, has also killed a Texas state senator.
Mattie Ross wants to see Tom Chaney dead. If possible, she’d like to kill him herself. Her second choice is to see him hanged by the intolerant Judge Parker. To make these things happen, she needs a federal marshal to catch him. She selects Rooster Cogburn because the sheriff has assured her that he is the meanest bastard available.
Mattie Ross arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with her “chaperone” Yarnell (who appears to be a loyal, trusted servant in the Ross home). She has come to fetch her father’s body.
At least that’s what she has told the folks back home. Mattie, in fact, has other things on her mind. She has traveled from Dardenelle to Fort Smith with a darker purpose in her heart. She means to hunt down and kill Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father. She seeks what she calls “justice,” but which we might label “revenge.” (The poster for the movie promises “retribution,” which implies justice of the divine kind.)
I urge the reader to see the movie before reading further. Spoilers, of necessity, follow.
“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” states the epigram, then informs the viewer where to find the quote. If you look up the quote, there is another half to it. “But the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
What does this mean? It’s not about flight and boldness, exactly, but about wickedness and righteousness.