…and the quest to see everything

Coen’s True Grit

Mattie Ross’ story is back on the movies again, and this time we hear her adult voice first while blurry yellow lights shine somewhere within the centre of the screen. Eventually the audience gets an image of her father, Frank, lying dead in front of a porch.

The camera shows Frank’s body from a safe distance. Eventually the film shows dried skin from cadavers in a mortuary where young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) has to sleep, hollowed out eyes, a man (John Goodman?) shot in the head, bodies that become exposed on the snow, men who die because their heads will fall on rocks, a man who has long passed with a snake living where his stomach has been.

Do you want me to count the injuries too? The multiple gun wounds, the ranger Laboeuf (Matt Damon) mangling up his mouth and teeth, Mattie getting spanked, getting a boot on her head and a gun pointed at her, threats of rape directed at her at least once. And that’s not the end of her suffering. As a frank depiction of the Western, the beautifully shot True Grit honestly show the corporeal effects of a violent civilization where the dead are disrespected, some of whom deserve that fate.

We’ve seen this realism in the Coen’s No Country for Old Men, but what makes the violence more shocking is that it’s seen and experienced by a girl. Mattie, who backs up her claims in knowing the legal aspects of 1870’s Arkansas, behaves as if her father’s death has always been a possibility. In his passing, she aims to take care of his business matters, since her mother’s apparently not so good at those things. She also looks for a hired Marshall to hunt for the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father.

The sheriff gives her three choices for her Marshall and she chooses the meanest one, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). The men she encounters already brand her as a headstrong, young woman in pursuing Chaney and going to the country with him despite Cogburn’s advice. Yet in hiring Cogburn, she concedes that she can’t do the job alone. The film exposes other symbolic manifestations of her shortcomings. A hat that’s too small for her that she modifies with a newspaper, her oversized clothing. Buying a pony instead of a horse – although she doesn’t ride side-saddle. She asks Cogburn or Laboeuf what should they do in instances like gunner showdowns, her question actually meaning what are the men going to do for her.

Going back to being unable to do the job alone, that fits not only Mattie but the rest of the major characters as well. Mattie and Laboeuf successfully petition to Cogburn and each other that they’re necessary in the journey, even if they have to do so repeatedly. Laboeuf, who has investigated Chaney, his other crimes and his whereabouts, convinces Cogburn that it takes a two-man job at the least to take Chaney. Mattie is the ethical heart of the journey, her presence in the trek a reminder of Chaney’s crimes.

Along the way, there are some  pauses and silences within the film that eventually leads to Coenesque humour. Mattie’s encounters with the men in town, their awkward if not mean-spirited treatment of her greeted with laughter and not of the nervous kind. Cogburn’s encounters with Native kids [ETA] made me feel uncomfortable. And of course, the dentist with the bear suit, taking us away from one-note solemnity that the rest of the journey could have been.

I saw this film with my sister, who lauded Mattie for being a feminist hero and Steinfeld’s fast yet smooth talking performance, besting veterans like Bridges and Damon in the Coenesque dialogue. There are also racial dynamics minimized here. Strangely enough, the black and Asian characters having fewer lines within the narrative compared to the John Wayne vehicle 40 years ago. She lastly pointed out Chaney, as Brolin adds paranoia and vulnerability to his irrational villain. 4/5.

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3 responses

  1. Nice scoop! I’ve been looking forward to reading reviews of this, and yours has whetted my appetite further.

    December 20, 2010 at 8:12 pm

  2. True Grit carries on gallantly for much if its ride, but when the sun sets in the west, it’s still missing something.

    January 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

  3. Yes. A lot of people have complained about it being too manicured. I also think one of the final scenes could have been done without CGI.

    January 11, 2011 at 3:11 pm

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