True Grit part 2












Spoilers, obviously.

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.)

This has been Mattie’s plan from the moment she heard the news of her father’s death.  It must have been – otherwise, why would she have gone?  Yarnell could have fetched Mr. Ross’s body himself, assuming he is as trustworthy as he appears to be.  If Mrs. Ross trusts Yarnell enough to “chaperone” her 14-year-old daughter, she certainly trusts him enough to retrieve her husband’s body and pay the people who need payment for their services.  Mattie has, I’m sure of it, deliberately inserted herself into the situation of retrieving her father, with the secret plan of seeing to the death of Tom Chaney.

Mattie is a Presbyterian, which is to say, a protestant.  Why is this important?  For the sake of the character, it means that her Protestantism allows her to feel superior to everyone she meets in Fort Smith.  She is also in a higher economic class than most of the people she meets, which helps elevate her self-image.  She is not a bigot as such, but her church, her faith, has given her a rather stunning sense of entitlement.  Imbued with what she sees as a one, true faith, she comes to Fort Smith kick ass and take names.  Her superiority allows her to boss around the African-American (presumably ex-slave) Yarnell and haggle with the Irish undertaker over the cost of her father’s embalming.

The Irish undertaker shows Mattie her father’s body and says “If you would loik to kiss him, it would be all roight.”  This line of dialogue appears once in the novel, but the Coens have the undertaker say it twice.  Why?  Because the undertaker sees Mattie as a bereaved girl, he’s expecting her to wail and cry and show sentiment. So much so he offers her opportunity twice.

But Mattie shows none of these things – rather, she complains about the price of embalming (“There is nothing free except the grace of God”).  She’s sure that this Irish undertaker is trying to cheat her somehow and she forces him to explain himself.  Yarnell, on the other hand, behaves the way the undertaker would expect him to – he says “Praise the Lord” and looks to heaven.  Mattie, on the other hand, says “The spirit has flown” and proceeds to bicker.  She is not bereaved, she does not even seem affected.  Mattie, for the most part, shows a stunning capacity for detachment – she’s not just cool-headed, she’s cold.

The Coens use the themes of “death” and “business” to help tell the story of Mattie Ross and her coming-of-age story.  Those themes are there in the novel, but the Coens highlight them at every turn – there is profit in killing, and everyone wants a piece of it.  (There are also important political aspects to the novel that the Coens elide or completely jettison, more on which later.)














Dardanelle, Yell County and Fort Smith at first seem like simply colorful place names to Yanks like myself, but there is an important geographic aspect to them.  Fort Smith is on the border of the Choctaw Nation, which makes it a border town.  Because it is a border town, it is also the place where outlaws who have fled into the Choctaw nation are brought to justice.  Because of its geographical location, Fort Smith sees a large number of the most wicked sort of folks come through.  Judge Parker, who shows up later, has taken it upon himself to hang as many criminals as possible.  Fort Smith, we could say, sees itself as a bulwark against chaos, protecting the burgeoning American civilization at the frontier of savagery.

(Mattie, of course, sees Forth Smith differently.  These are the people who ignored her father’s death and who try to cheat innocent girls out of her money – they are nearly as wicked as Tom Chaney himself.)











Before we meet Judge Parker, we see some of his handiwork.  Looking for the sheriff, Mattie attends the days hangings in the town square.  Three criminals are being hanged, whom the credits call “Repentant Condemned Man, Unrepentant Condemned Man and Condemned Indian.”  Lots of folks have turned up to see the hanging; later we will learn that the local boarding house is all full up because of the influx of tourists.  So we see that capital punishment has a commercial side to it – it helps the tourist trade and it keeps undertakers busy (the novel also includes a Mexican boy selling tamales at the hanging – the boy made it into the screenplay but not into the final cut).

The Repentent Condemned Man gives an eloquent speech, pleading with the good people of Fort Smith to teach their children to avoid wickedness.  The Unrepentant Condemned Man insists that his execution is entirely unfair, and the Condemned Indian has his speech cut short by the executioner.  (This last is an invention of the Coens, the Indian in the novel gets to say his piece.)  The point is, all three are hanged at once, the repentant, the unrepentant and the non-Christian alike.  Is this justice?  Is it retribution?  Or is it just business?

(The novel makes a point of underlining Judge Parker’s cruelty and vindictiveness.  By the time Mattie is narrating the story, Parker and his ways have been done away with by Republicans [that is, liberals] from “up North.”  Mattie’s Southernness is crucial to understanding her character.  The Civil War is a fresh memory when the movie takes place, and Mattie’s sense of righteousness runs parallel to the South’s.)

Mattie tracks down the Sheriff, who shows no sign of being in any way taxed by the three killings he just committed, and asks his advice on who would be the best marshal to track down Chaney.  Just as the sheriff has offered three condemned men to consider, he now offers Mattie three marshals – one who is an expert tracker, one who is a ruthless bastard, and one who is a just and pious man.  He’s expecting Mattie to choose the just man, but she chooses Rooster Cogburn instead, the meanest marshal available.  So it seems Mattie does not seek justice in the way we think of it now.  No, she seeks an eye for an eye, and she wishes to hire a wicked man to catch a wicked man.


2 Responses to “True Grit part 2”
  1. PunkAnderson says:

    In the novel Mattie describes that the path her father took from Dardanelle to Fort Smith passed Mount Nebo and Mount Magazine, the highest mountain in Arkansas. The route which you’ve selected in your map is it the former railroad line?

    Regards from Germany