True Grit part 9












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.

There is nothing left but to go home, but fate (or God) has something else in store for Mattie.  The morning after her logical plot terminus, she goes down to the local creek to fetch water for breakfast and finds, to her surprise, Tom Chaney himself, watering some horses.

A coincidence!  The number-one thing for a screenwriter to shun, a coincidence!  And here one is, providing the catalyst to launch Act III of the movie!  Tom Chaney has been found, not because of Rooster’s cunning or LaBoeuf’s steadfastness, but because of a coincidence!

What can this mean?  Aside from the fact that it’s taken directly from the novel, why would the Coen Bros, one of the smartest screenwriting teams to ever ply the trade, allow their plot to hinge on a coincidence?

It seems to me, the coincidence cuts two ways: either God has led Mattie to this creek on this morning at this time, because He’s been with her the whole time, or else there is no God, and all Mattie’s plans are meaningless – she could have found Chaney just as easily by herself.

(Given the Coens’ love of absurdism, I’m tempted to say the case is the latter, but then A Serious Man placed an entire plot on the question of whether God is there or not, and, similarly, refused to answer, or even guess at an answer.)

There is, I suppose, a third possibility, since Mattie doesn’t really seem all that concerned about God, which is that Mattie finds Chaney at the exact point that she gives up hope of ever doing so.  Which, again, suggests a religious angle to the coincidence.  It is when we have given up hope that we pray.  To put it a different way, the act of prayer is the individual’s acknowledgement that he or she is not in control of a situation.  So it is only when Mattie gives up hope of success that success is granted.  In this way, she could be said to have achieved a state of grace.

Chaney, for his part, seems baffled and amused by running into Mattie in the middle of nowhere.  This is perhaps an act (we’ve been told that Chaney pretends to be stupid to throw people off), but still, the affable greeting he gives Mattie indicates that he’s actually kind of forgotten all about killing Mattie’s father back in Forth Smith.  It is certainly a surprise to him that she’s come all this way searching for him with murder in her heart.  As for Mattie, it’s one thing to find that no one in Fort Smith cares about catching her father’s killer, but it’s something else again to confront the man and find that he’s kind of forgotten all about it.  It’s points both to the enormity of Chaney’s badness and to Mattie’s smallness in the world.  No one, not even LaBoeuf, cares about the death of Mattie’s father.

Now that Mattie has found Chaney, what will she do?  Well, she will do what she set out to do: kill him with her father’s gun (after asking him where her father’s other California Gold Piece is).

She hits him, but only wounds him, which prompts Chaney to gripe “Nothing is going right for me.”  Chaney will continue to grumble about his condition for the rest of his time in the movie – “Nothing is going my way,” “Everything is against me.”  Chaney, we could say, does not see himself as the master of his fate.  It seems that he doesn’t connect cause and effect, he doesn’t see how his killing a man causes a teenage girl to hunt him down, doesn’t see himself connected to his own life.  Rather, he sees himself as just trying to get along in life and misfortune just kind of throws itself at him, willy-nilly.  He neither plans nor reflects, he lives in an eternal “now.”

Chaney cannot plan, but he can react – indeed, that seems to be his first and only response to any given situation.  So when Mattie shoots him, Chaney turns the tables on her, picks her up and hauls her to the other side of the creek.  (Nice that Act I ends with Mattie crossing a river from civilization to savagery, now Act III begins with her crossing a creek from savagery to her worst nightmare: the outlaw’s camp.)











Mattie then meets Chaney’s “boss,” Ned Pepper.  Ned, the reader will recall, is Rooster’s true goal in the narrative.  Capturing Chaney will get Rooster Mattie’s $50, but capturing Ned will get him more back in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s court.

(Again, the severity of Judge Parker’s court is a crucial aspect of the narrative of the novel; it’s greatly soft-pedaled here in this adaptation.  Regardless, Ned Pepper, regardless of his crimes, has excellent reason to want to avoid Rooster and Judge Parker – they represent nothing but death, there is no justice in them.)

Rooster arrives on the scene, and Ned uses Mattie as a lever to get away.  Rooster tells Ned to go ahead and kill Mattie, which is either a bluff (likely) or else his true feelings (still possible at this point – who knows?).  In any case, Ned takes Mattie back to his camp.

Mattie, upon arriving at Ned’s camp, immediately begins to negotiate.  She wants bacon, she doesn’t want coffee, and she feels an enormous sense of entitlement for someone who is currently a hostage.

Ned has no use for Mattie.  Rather, she represents a clear and present danger to his plans.  And yet, he treats her with a good deal of respect and civility.  In return, Mattie sees that Ned is not a savage, and goes so far as to offer him legal counsel.  “I need a good judge,” says Ned, again, raising the question of retribution.  Judge Parker, Ned feels, is not a good judge.  Rooster is certainly not a good judge.  Mattie feels that she is good judge, and a good jury and executioner to boot, but the Coens expand Ned’s line to suggest that the “good judge” Ned needs is a just God.  God, we’ve seen, has abandoned the world, regardless of what Mattie feels.  There is no justice here, only savagery, only witless, reactive animals like Tom Chaney.  (Ned has one guy in his gang who even behaves as an animal, and Ned values him over Chaney.)

Ned needs to get on the move, and he leaves Mattie with Chaney watching her.  The movie’s negotiation scenes come to a head here: all along, we’ve been told that death is worth money.  Now, Ned informs us, the promise of money can also prevent death.  He instructs Chaney: if you kill Mattie, you will not get a cut of our loot.  Is this the only real retribution that exists in this world, that if you kill you will need to pay a financial debt?  Rooster and LaBoeuf make money from killing men, but now Ned will pay a man not to kill a little girl.

It is a sign of Chaney’s animalism, his lack of civilization, that, the moment Ned leads his gang out of the campsite, Chaney makes up his mind to kill Mattie regardless of the cost.


5 Responses to “True Grit part 9”
  1. Andrew says:

    I’m so glad you brought up the coincidence meeting; yes it happens sometimes with strange regularity in some Coen Brother’s films, but usually only because it is funny or absurd for it to happen (O Brother Where Art Thou comes to mind).

    Seems a bit out of place in this film; and is the only event that doesn’t follow on from some actual planning from the characters even in the vaguest sense. Struck me as very funny when I saw it in the cinema (I did laugh), I think it would not be a bad thing if they had altered that part of the screenplay.

    But in any case, even if it comes down to some significant religious reference or just plain dumb luck, it moved the plot along at least, at a very fast pace.

  2. N.A. says:

    Much as I always enjoy and admire your analysis, I can’t agree with the notion that Mattie does not love her father passionately. Indeed, I think she loves him so much that she attempts to become him, in ways far beyond the donning of his clothes. I think her self-confidence, her keen acumen with money (“Mattie the bookkeeper,” Chaney tellingly calls her, and who would have given or allowed her that responsibility but her father?), and her moral rigidity must all be reflections of her father’s own bearing and beliefs. In her grief, she seems to cling to his memory, and escape from her own sadness, by trying to be as much like him as possible, and to do what he would do. And what he would do, clearly, is show no outward distress, be brave and assured, and seek both payment and just vengance in equal measure.

    The moments in the film I found most interesting come when the cracks in this armor show through; when Mattie is sad, or scared, or when — as in her choice of Rooster to hunt down Chaney — she smugly deludes herself into thinking that the manifestations of her own boiling teenage-girl anger over her father’s death are the sort of calm and sober choices her father might make.

    Also, I was surprised at Ned Pepper’s ultimate decency. It seems that the core of morality that Rooster and LaBoeuf must develop through their interactions with Mattie comes far more naturally — if not immediately — to Ned. At the very least, it was an unexpected twist to the character, and lent him and his eventual fate a welcome ambiguity.

  3. IIRC, the meeting is not nearly as coincidental in the novel: in the book, the trio bring in the bodies of the ambushed bandits to secure their claim and then ride hard day and night to go to Pepper’s hide-out. Rooster finally allows them to camp at a point he thinks is a few miles short of the hide-out, but, deep in his cups, he miscalculates and camps essentially on top of the bandits. Thus, in the novel, Rooster’s character leads directly to the crisis.

  4. Andrew says:

    That’s interesting to know Larry 🙂 sounds like a much more convincing coincidence, surprised they didn’t use that kind of method, might have taken a while to actually portray in the film I’d guess.

    • Mimi says:

      @Andrew: It was also critical at this point in the script to isolate Mattie, to leave the audience feeling she is really left to her own devices in this wild, scary world. In turn, Rooster had to give up and “wash his hands” of the whole situation, thereby lowering Mattie’s opinion of him while increasing her esteem for LaBoeuf. When LaBoeuf takes off, we are really left with the sense that she is a woman alone.