True Grit part 5












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.)

Who is Mattie Ross?  Mattie is, for lack of a better word, a child of the Civil War.  She has been born into this new nation, this nation that still has a frontier, still has wilderness, still has wildness in it.  That wildness is fast disappearing, and Mattie is part of it.  She represents the new sense of civilization, the gentility of the American spirit.  What Mattie doesn’t really understand is that her gentility, her civilization, is possible only because of the brutality, genocide and fratricide that has preceded it.  Her sense of superiority and entitlement ignores the genuine savagery of the nation’s founding.  She takes it for granted that the law must be obeyed, that capital dictates morality, that civilization is better than the wild.

That’s why, for the purposes of the narrative of True Grit, Mattie does not show any signs of grieving for her father, whose death she’s supposedly revenging.  Her father’s death is beside the point, she’s interested primarily in dispensing what she calls “justice.”  And her father, her symbolic father, isn’t dead, he’s riding right along with her – he’s Rooster Cogburn.  More on which as we continue.

As Act II begins, Mattie sits around the campfire with Rooster and LaBoeuf as the two men engage in a pissing contest for Mattie’s edification.  LaBoeuf tells tales of being a proud Texas Ranger and Rooster shoots him down, step by step.  What is at stake?  They are competing for Mattie’s fealty, they are each auditioning for the role of father.  Each of their arguments is, “I am a better man than you.”  LaBoeuf’s point of view is, “I am a member of a resourceful, courageous organization, I stand for something, I come from tradition and honor.”  Rooster’s counter-argument is “Sure, but do you get results?”

Mattie’s response to her warring symbolic-fathers’ argument is to tell a ghost story, which is the only thing we know that she used to do with her biological father.  In a way, she’s saying “Neither of you is my father, my father is the man who took me coon hunting.”

(There is a passage in the novel where Mattie goes to see Rooster in his room behind the Chinese grocery, and Rooster finds a rat in the grain supplies.  In a show for Mattie, he pretends to present a writ of arrest to the rat, “a writ for a rat,” and then shoots the rat when it does not comply.  The message is clear: to Rooster, criminals are rats and need to be exterminated, not presented with rulings.  This scene, which is key to the novel, turned up in the 1969 version of the movie, but didn’t make it into the Coens’ version.  My guess?  The Coens didn’t want to paint Rooster as a reactionary, or perhaps they didn’t want to draw comparisons to the “what do you do with a rat” scene from Inglourious Basterds.  Whatever the case, the Coens have definitely downplayed a major part of the novel, which is to show Rooster’s discomfort in the newly encroaching civilized world.)

The next morning, Mattie confers with Rooster about what his plan is with LaBoeuf.  She’s shocked to learn that Rooster has, in fact, cut her out of the deal.  He now plans to team with LaBoeuf, capture Chaney and return him to Texas “for a considerable reward.”  Mattie is shocked because she has been outbid.  She has promised Rooster $100, but he’s gotten a better deal from LaBoeuf.  Mattie is outraged because, as far as she knew, she was Capital in this scenario, and, as Capital, she has the right to call the shots.  Her monetary might, in her view, makes her unquestionably right.

Her outrage gets cut short by another argument between Rooster and LaBoeuf.  This one is about the Civil War.  Both men fought for the Confederacy, but LaBoeuf was in the regular army, and proud of it, while Rooster rode with Quantrill.  For non-students of the Civil War, Quantrill was either a guerilla leader or a savage terrorist, depending on where you were at the time.  Rooster obviously feels that Quantrill was the former, while the more straight-laced LaBoeuf sees him the way history tends to see him – a monster, a man who attacked civilians and massacred women and children.  To a good liberal, this might seem like splitting hairs, two Confederate soldiers arguing about the right and wrong of the war, but in the context of True Grit, again, it’s a generational conflict: LaBoeuf prizes dignity and honor, while Rooster gets results.


5 Responses to “True Grit part 5”
  1. Mike says:

    An excellent exegesis, but I have a very different interpretation. I think it *is* in a sense a “father-son” movie, except Mattie was her father’s favorite (and in a sense a substitute son). She says several times that her mother is a silly woman (not in those words) and her siblings children. Clearly, she is the one on whom responsibility falls. I think we see in her character her father’s character–and her uprightness and unyielding focus are what she learned from him. She is in a sense acting as his child–acting as he would have acted–as a way of grieving for him. She has to take his place; no one else will. Heck, she refuses to sell his saddle, as she conducts his business, then dresses in his coat and his hat and sets out to avenge his murder…with his gun. I think she’s assuming her father’s character out of loyalty and fealty to him.

    • Mimi says:

      I second this post.

      I also think Mattie’s coldness regarding the death of her father reflects her almost frightening self-restraint (as well as the way she intentionally presents herself, ergo the way she wishes to be perceived) more than her actual feelings toward the man, which are betrayed in small but beautiful ways throughout the film. The way she is overcome to the point of speechlessness upon seeing his personal effects at the boarding house (the music swells, the landlady’s wheedling about the flour sack becomes muted and distant), the softly delivered offhand comment “we had a lot of fun,” when she describes coon-hunting on the Petit Jean to Rooster, these hints of love for her late father are small, but add enormously to her character. They show a vulnerability that is actually deeply poignant in contrast to the rigid arbiter she conveys herself to be. This vulnerability also reminds the audience of her age–and provides a rather heartbreaking contrast between the child Mattie and the calcified adult Mattie.

  2. lesleymac says:

    I would like to hear more about how High Noon was about McCarthyism. Future post?


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