True Grit part 10












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.

Except, huzzah!  LaBoeuf shows up at the last moment to save the day!  LaBoeuf, who boasts of his “steadfastness,” has left Mattie’s cause once in anger, then again in sorrow, and has now joined up with her again.

In the novel, LaBoeuf never goes away, much less twice.  The Coens, in order to heighten the dramatic tension of Act II, created an unreliable LaBoeuf in conflict with Mattie.

Or, one could say, both Rooster and LaBoeuf are simply different aspects of Mattie.  LaBoeuf wants to get Chaney for the good of society, Rooster wants to get him for his own sake.  LaBoeuf, thematically speaking, represents Mattie’s better angel coming and going as she wills it.  When she tells LaBoeuf that she has misjudged him, this is what she means.  She had found him proud and boastful, but his actions have shown him to be faithful and dependable.

LaBoeuf explains that he had run into Rooster on the road, and they made a hasty plan for LaBoeuf to rescue Mattie while Rooster captures Ned Pepper.  And here’s Rooster now, down in the valley (of the shadow of death?) to waylay Ned and his gang.

We have seen that Rooster, despite his badge, is not a good man, and we have seen that Ned, despite his crimes, is not a bad man.  What unfolds is not a contest of civility against barbarism, but a contest between two men who have found themselves, for different reasons, on either side of the law, which exists, for the purposes of this movie, to allow white civilization to encroach upon Indian land, for the sake of white people making a whole lot of money.

And yet, when Rooster is pitted against Ned and three other goons, we wish for him to prevail.  Why?  Perhaps because we love an underdog, although Ned would be the underdog from his point of view.  Perhaps simply because we’ve spent more time with Rooster.  We weren’t there when Ned and company robbed the Katie Flyer, we only know of him what Rooster has told us – who knows?  Ned and his gang, in another movie, would be charming rogues, Butch Cassidies, unfairly cut down by a ruthless, heartless state for the crime of wanting to breathe freely.

No.  We want Rooster to win in his battle against Ned because we, like him, are sinners, and we, like him, wish to be good.  We are as broken down spiritually as he is broken down physically, and we root for him to get his act together, despite his flaws, and show us what he’s made of.  Ned may not be “bad,” but he stands in opposition to Rooster, and greatly outnumbers him.

It is a cliché that we reveal our true character, our “true grit,” as it were, in moments of crisis.  Well, here is Rooster’s moment of crisis, and how does he respond?  He’s in the valley of the shadow of death, yet he fears no evil.  He almost certainly does not believe that the Lord is his shepherd – rather, he’s ready to die, if that’s what the situation calls for.  At his leisure, he’s a mess, but in the moment, Rooster is a natural-born killer.

Or near enough.  Rooster kills Ned’s three men, but only wounds Ned before his horse falls over on top of him.  Pinned, Rooster is doomed.

Except that this is also LaBoeuf’s moment of crisis.  LaBoeuf’s flaw, remember, is that, when it matters, he is too careful.  But now his patience, logic and sense of control serve him well, and he is able to shoot Ned off his horse.

(For those who enjoy this sort of thing, there is a tiny Saving Private Ryan joke imbedded in this moment.  The viewer will recall from that movie, Barry Pepper played the Southern sniper who prayed before sniping, on his way to save Matt Damon.  Here, Matt Damon plays the Southern sniper who gives a short prayer before sniping at bad-guy Barry Pepper.)

So in this moment of crisis, Rooster has shown that he has what it takes, and LaBoeuf has shown likewise.  What about Mattie?

Mattie gets her chance immediately afterward.  Tom Chaney suddenly appears, knocks LaBoeuf on the head with a rock, and struggles with Mattie over possession of LaBoeuf’s Sharps carbine.  Mattie gets the gun and unceremoniously shoot Chaney in the chest, sending him reeling off the edge of a cliff.

(Fun fact: the term “sharpshooter” comes from the Sharps rifle: those who were excellent shots gravitated toward it for its accuracy.  At this particular range, Mattie hardly needed it.)

So Mattie gets what she came all this way to get: she has killed Tom Chaney.  And what is her reward?  Does God smile upon her?  Do the clouds open up and bring down a sunbeam upon her?  No.  No, Mattie gets kicked back the recoil of the rifle and falls down a deep pit.

What kind of pit is it?  Well, it’s the kind of pit that has dead bodies and snakes in it.  This pit, one does not need to be a practicing Christian to recognize as an expression of Hell.

So Mattie, for her act of retribution, is cast, immediately, into Hell.  All her self-righteous fury has brought her here.  Her struggle with Chaney was her moment of crisis, and her response has gotten her damned.

Who shall save her from Hell?  As it happens, it is Rooster (and LaBoeuf).  The bad man, the rough savage, the drunken lout, the great sinner, the man Mattie took for a tool she could use for retribution, climbs down into the pit and saves her, but not before she has been snakebit.

So Mattie’s salvation is not yet guaranteed.  No, Rooster must now get her to a doctor (hopefully not the one in the bearskin coat).  To get Mattie to a doctor, Rooster must ride her into the night, until Mattie’s horse’s heart bursts, then carry her himself until he collapses outside Bagby’s store.

(Commerce, again, as the furthest outpost of civilization.  Bagby’s is a literal lantern in the wilderness.  In the novel, Rooster carries Mattie all the way back to Fort Smith.)

(It’s worth noting that even when Mattie is hanging upside-down in a pit surrounded by snakes, her temper barely rises above mild anxiety.  Mattie is many things, but a crybaby is not one of them.)

Rooster is, of course, not only saving Mattie.  He is also saving himself.  This journey he’s taken with Mattie has shown Rooster who he is, and he has not enjoyed the view.  If his life is to amount to anything, he must save the life of this girl, in spite of the way that she has used him, in spite of her self-righteousness, in spite of her low opinion of him (and, to be fair, everyone).

So: is there a God?  If there is, He is not a backer of Mattie Ross.  He sends her to Hell for her sins, and it is up to a sinner, an earthly man if there ever was one, to get her out.

In an epilogue, we see Mattie in middle age.  She has not mellowed.  Her adventure and near-death experience on the frontier has not made her gentler, kinder or more loveable.  She has been saved but she has not changed.  And the qualities she had as a girl, her stubbornness, wiliness and aggression, have now curdled into flintiness, coldness and hardness.

(“Keep your seat, trash,” she says to no less a personage than Frank James.  James, for those who are not a student of the Olde West, was considered a hero to many of the South, and was also a member, like Rooster, of Quantrill’s Raiders.  The idea that Frank James, Cole Younger and Rooster were appearing in a Wild West show in the early 1900s shows how tamed the West had become by the time Mattie catches up to Rooster.)

She seeks out Rooster, at his invitation (she never paid him the fifty dollars she promised him), but he has died by the time she finds him.  Instead of revisiting him, she ships him (in an echo of a previous scene) back to her family plot in Yell County.  Whatever moved Mattie about Rooster’s “grit,” it is a secret to us, and perhaps even to herself.  “Time just gets away from us,” she notes simply, but it appears that much more has escaped Mattie.

(Grown-up Mattie also mentions that LaBoeuf must be nearly 80 years old at the end of the movie.  That sounds like a mistake, but what the viewer can’t know without reading the novel is that Mattie is narrating the story from a point of view long past her retrieval of Rooster’s body.  Time just gets away from the screenplay, as well.)


7 Responses to “True Grit part 10”
  1. Markus says:

    I (once again) greatly enjoyed your analysis, particularly of this last part which carries more substance and meaning than I had appreciated while watching the movie.
    I think it’s important to point out that Mattie had to pay for her actions (and attitude) by losing her arm.

    My problem with the movie was that I didn’t feel sympathy for any of the main characters. Mattie did not show any particular sorrow over her Dad’s death, her motivation for seeking revenge and wanting to exact it personally was not quite clear. I didn’t really feel moved to be rooting for her.
    Rooster could’ve been portrayed as lovable or righteous, instead he comes across as a drunkard and a killer.
    LaBoeuf was a laughingstock thanks to his overblown pride and rhetoric.
    I guess you could say it’s a sign of the movie’s complexity that none of these characters is unambiguous. They all have their flaws but come through in the end.
    Then again, while watching the movie I was wondering why I’m supposed to care. Fact is, I didn’t.
    And approximately ten people got killed in order to get revenge for Mattie’s father getting killed. Hmm.
    I think I may see it again but only because your discussion of the movie suggests that it might warrant a second (or third) viewing not because I enjoyed it so much that I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again. The first time I saw “Fargo” or “The Man Who Wasn’t There” I knew I’d want to see those movies time and time again.

  2. normangunston says:

    Thankyou for noting the Saving Private Ryan nod. Something tickled me about that moment but I wasn’t sure what. No doubt you’ve noted the Lucky Ned Pepper/Barry Pepper gag too. Part of me wonders whether Barry Pepper was cast out of a perverse notion to achieve this symmetry. In any case he was fine in the role.

    I found the sequence of Rooster riding Mattie to Bagby’s store wrenchingly emotional. No doubt this is much to do with Rooster’s redemption, as you’ve noted. But perhaps also because the Coens have – throughout the movie – created dramatic tension via constantly thrusting Mattie into situations where she behaves not at all like a 14 year old girl (and also frustrating our expectation that she should be mourning for her father). Finally, under the effects of the snake venom, Mattie is vulnerable and by circumstance allows herself to be held.

  3. N.A. says:

    You talk a lot about how Mattie doesn’t seem sad about her dad’s death. But for me, this movie was all about Mattie’s grief over her father’s death. She expresses it not through any conventional show of sadness, but by becoming her father — wrapping herself in his personality as surely as she dresses up in his hat and coat. We can infer a lot about Mattie’s father through the way Mattie acts — that he was a self-righteous, perhaps rigidly upright man, unapologetically shrewd and relentless in business. (Chaney tellingly calls Mattie “the bookkeeper,” suggesting that her father made her his protege.) Bereft of him, Mattie seeks comfort (consciously or otherwise) by trying to become him. The fascinating part of the movie for me was seeing Mattie subvert her father’s memory to justify the seething emotions within her — to assure herself that bloody revenge would have been just the thing her father wanted, when it’s actually what she wants. In a way, that makes her a mirror to Rooster, who uses his authority as a lawman to basically shoot whomever the hell he feels like shooting.

    This movie is all about the love between fathers and daughters, right down to the hymn Carter Burwell builds the film’s score around — a song which the Coens rather brilliantly echo in the finale, as Rooster, having assumed the role of fatherhood she once shunned with his own son, is desperately carrying Mattie toward help. “Leaning, leaning / safe and secure from all alarms / leaning, leaning / leaning on the everlasting arms.”

    As always, I admire and enjoy your analysis! Thanks!

  4. Mimi says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful, blow-by-blow analysis of this oddly rich little film. I really enjoyed hearing your take on it.

    “And the qualities she had as a girl, her stubbornness, wiliness and aggression, have now curdled into flintiness, coldness and hardness.” I loved this about the ending. It was absolutely heart-rending to see that calcification of her character paired with the phrase “time just gets away from us.”

    I did not see Rooster riding under the stars to save Mattie so much as him “saving himself.” In the end, he doesn’t really change. He is not redeemed in any broad or sustained way, he remains Rooster. This point is made clear in Portis’s novel, where Cogburn is stripped of his Marshal title three weeks after his return to Fort Smith for ambushing and shooting Otis Wharton (the man on trial on the courtroom scene) and his (non-outlaw) cohorts in cold blood. This outcome would make perfect sense in the context of the Coens’ film as well.

    Rather, I saw that (tremulous, beautiful) scene as Cogburn conveying a small act of–what is it, exactly, mercy? Divine love? Either way, it moves through him, he is merely a vessel, and then it leaves him again. It is Mattie’s “grace of God”, delivered by a man who very much inhabits the world she describes in the beginning of the film: one where everything must be paid for, one way or another.

    Regarding the timeline, I think Mattie’s estimation of LaBoeuf’s age is spot-on. The main events of the novel and film take place in 1877, when LaBoeuf is somewhere between 30-35 (at least by the novel, Matt Damon being 40ish, LaBoeuf could maybe be in his late 30s) putting his birth year around 1840. It is 1903 when Mattie goes to see Cogburn and finds he has passed. In the final scene, it is around 1920 (Mattie is noticeably aged) placing LaBoeuf around 80 years old.

  5. Arthur F. says:

    I’ve been reading you for years, but just curious – what happened that caused your wonderfully paced script/plot/protag?/analysis blog (one that thankfully knew the value of certain animation) to shift from ‘real time’ to epic, as in glacier-mode? It can feel like an invitation for certain kind of trackers, coming together to discuss their interpretation of grooves traced out by a few inches of movement. You’ve shown how your days in performance framework were by-necessity aware of timing and pacing, so I would ask doesn’t the analysis of contemporary cinema have a kind of performative quality to it as well? At some point is your timing intentionally crossing a line into Robert Wilson territory, paced such that you examine the production until it starts to examine you? In which case, maybe you might consider to double the amount of postings on each individual production, really embrace that sense. I’d read that.

    • Todd says:

      What’s happened is, I’ve become less interested in casual observance and breezy commentary and more interested in deeper analysis. But the length of the analysis is always predicated by the quality of the screenplay. A screenplay like, say, Octopussy doesn’t demand a scene-by-scene analysis, while a screenplay like The Shining does.

      For what it’s worth, I think my Venture Bros analysis was just as in-depth, it was just about a 23-minute TV show, so it didn’t take as much time.

      And, I might add, I could go right back to a screenplay like Jaws and analyze it again and still find stuff.