True Grit: part 4











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.

Why does LaBoeuf come to Mattie?  Two reasons, it seems – he wants to confirm that the man who killed her father is the same guy who killed the senator, but he also wants to know who she’s hired to go after him.  His aim is to cut her out of the deal, as though retribution is something negotiable.

To Mattie, LaBoeuf’s assumption is abhorrent – she doesn’t care about LaBoeuf or a Texan senator and she doesn’t see LaBoeuf as legitimate in any way.  She’s a stickler for the law, and she seems to stand for civilization in the wilderness, and yet she shows nothing but disdain for a murdered lawmaker and the Ranger tracking down his killer.

LaBoeuf, we learn, had a third objective going into this scene, to perhaps begin a romance with the 14-year-old Mattie, but her contempt for him, his situation and his state turn him from romantic to angry.

Mattie gets the letter she needs from her lawyer to get her $320 from Stonehill (Lawyer Daggett warns: “Your headstrong ways will lead you into a tight corner one day” – little does he know) and she goes to Stonehill’s stables to buy a pony for herself.  She picks out a spirited romper and names it Blackie, and we find out two things: she can handle herself on a horse, and the horse is a beaut.  The first will help us buy that Mattie is qualified to go with Rooster on her quest, and the second will pay off in the final reel.

Now that she has her money and her horse, she goes to fetch Rooster.  Rooster is dead asleep on his broken bunk in the back of a Chinese food store.  He’s not impressive at all, and says so in his defense: “I have nothing,” he sighs.  The price he has paid for his way of life (“You must pay for everything in this world”) is poverty, loneliness and squalor.  Mattie, unreasonably I think, takes him to task for his failings.  She wants a man with “grit;” well, living in a hangover in your filthy long underwear in the back room of a Chinese food store sounds pretty gritty to me.

(I’m not sure how important the word “grit” is to understanding the narrative of this movie, but it’s worth mentioning that it has several possible meanings: courage, which is what Mattie needs in a man; abrasiveness, which is what she herself has in spades; and “realness,” which she will see plenty of on her journey.  And which makes the title a little redundant.)

Once she browbeats and manipulates Rooster into taking the job and letting her come on the trip, she prepares for departure.  This involves wearing her father’s hat and coat, both of which are too big for her.

Oddly, this is the closest Mattie comes in the movie to expressing affection for her father.  In a boys’ adventure story, which True Grit resembles in many ways, the scene of a boy putting on his father’s clothes to hunt his father’s killer would resonate deeply – he’s trying to become his father.  It doesn’t resonate the same way here because Mattie doesn’t seem to have that much attachment to her father.  Rather, her journey is to find a new father, or, perhaps, find her “true” father, more on which later.

Once she puts on her father’s clothes, she takes some apples from a fruit bowl and rides out of town reciting the 23rd Psalm.  The symbolism here is obvious: the red apples represent Knowledge, which Mattie will acquire on her journey, before butting up against the apple’s companion, the Snake.

(For those keeping score, the snake is in the novel, the Coens brought in the apples.)

Mattie rides down to the ferry.  The river she needs to cross is probably either the Arkansas or the Poteau, but of course it’s actually the Rubicon – the point of no return.  On one side of the river, she is a genteel girl from a wealthy Southern family; on the other, she’s a young, skinny white girl in a savage wilderness.

When Mattie sees that Rooster and LaBoeuf have already crossed without her (to say nothing of how they have double-crossed her) she hurls an apple (!) at the ferryman’s head and rides across the river on Blackie.  We are granted many closeups of Blackie’s face as he valiantly swims across the river, the better to cement Blackie to Mattie in our minds, for maximum effect in the last reel.

LaBoeuf is enraged – he may have grit in the courage sense, but he’s also an egotist, which Rooster is not, and the idea that he could be flouted by a 14-year-old girl (who has spurned his romantic advances) is too much for him to bear.  He hauls her down from her horse and proceeds to whip her.  That is, he takes the role of the disciplinarian, and we get the sense that, whatever else her upbringing gave her, Mattie has never been disciplined in her life.

This is where Rooster steps in and calls off LaBoeuf.  Not when he’s angry, not when he’s telling Mattie to turn back, but when he takes it upon himself to discipline her.  At first I thought, well, Rooster has seen a little of himself in Mattie, she’s crossed the river with no help, certainly that took “grit.”  But now I see that Rooster steps in because he sees that LaBoeuf, whatever he is, is not Mattie’s father.  Which implies that, somewhere in the back of Rooster’s mind, he’s beginning to think of himself as Mattie’s father.

Now that the unlikely trio is assembled, the girl, the ersatz father and the ersatz spurned lover, the narrative can proceed.  As we move forward, Rooster will both challenge Mattie’s concept of fatherhood and embody it, and LaBoeuf will become a hindrance and a threat.


5 Responses to “True Grit: part 4”
  1. My reading was that Rooster called off LeBeouf because Mattie pointed out that she was Rooster’s employer. He seemed more amused by the scene than anything at first, but no way he’s gonna let some Texas dandy beat on his boss. He’s a goddamn professional.

    • Todd says:

      Rooster’s professionalism is an interesting aspect of True Grit, which we’ll get into more as we go on.

  2. Michael says:

    Off topic. English is not my first language. My understanding – pony is a small horse rather for carrying goods or something obedient in a circus ( not a romper) . Did Mattie buy a pony or a horse ? Also ponies are mentioned in negotiations with Col Stonehill. Was usage of word “pony” interchangeable with “horse” at that time ?

    • Todd says:

      I believe Mattie’s father was buying ponies from Col Stonehill, rather than horses. A pony is a smaller breed of horse, lighter and spryer. They’re used for driving and riding. It’s never mentioned why Mattie’s father was buying a string of ponies, nor is it mentioned why the family can’t use them now. In neither the novel or the movie is Mattie’s father’s business even gone into.

      I would bet that Blackie is one of the ponies Mattie’s father bought, which means that Blackie was bought by Mattie’s father at a high price, sold back to Col Stonehill for an overvalued price, and then sold back to Mattie for an undervalued price.

      • Mimi says:

        Also, I believe the term “pony” was (and still is) popularly used to refer to certain breeds of horses. So Blackie could technically be a horse, but still be referred to “correctly” as a pony by Mattie and the others.