Monday, January 10, 2011

Basman on True Grit, the 2010 Movie

The most intelligent things I’ve read about True Grit are the short essay by Stanley Fish here ( ) and the comments by Jakeh here ( ). They spurred my own thinking about the movie.

For all the contingency, randomness, inexplicability and savagery of this True Grit’s world, the movie clearly delineates poles of good and evil, right and wrong. So its world is not ontologically absurd, but at risk of being driven into meaninglessness by evil and wrong abetted by nature’s indifference and destructiveness, as initially evident in Chaney’s utterly heedless killing of Mattie’s father.

Nature includes men’s nature and the brute inside them. To separate themselves from the worst of nature and overcome the beast within, men civilize themselves and try to impose themselves on nature by social life ruled by law, convention and even decorum. Thus, in the movie, the fundamental antipodes of town and country are separated by the waters between Fort Smith, Arkansas and the untamed Indian Territory. The movie therefore reprises the great traditional American theme of town and country, of civilization taming, as it ever encroaches on, the vanishing frontier.

Within this frame, what is true grit? For me, the movie at bottom is about personal redemption by a determined quest for a righteous cause. Grit is what counts as indomitability, the sheer willfulness, stick-to-it-ness, to get done what one wants to do. What makes such grit true? I’d say at least two things: the actual grit itself as in truly having it and showing it, (Mattie early on tells Cogburn, I paraphrase, “Talk and drinking whiskey are cheap and not what I am paying you for.”); and the grit in the service of a righteous cause, making it true as in moral. For wrong and evil can also be determined and willfully finish what they start.

In the town law predominates and we see its works in, for some examples, the however savage multiple hanging under law, which Mattie witnesses with nary a flutter, in Mattie’s manipulative use of it and threat of it in her successful bargaining with Stonehill, where she gets more than she is entitled to in Stonehill’s buy back of the ponies and in the hearing concerning Cogburn’s killing of the family he has nearly wiped out. The hearing seems to represent some attempt to rein Rooster in but it is ineffectual. That attempt spells law’s attempt to get some purchase on its officers’ conduct in the untamed country.

Mattie wraps herself in the law’s means to get what she wants. So after hearing from the Sheriff, who has no jurisdiction in the country, that Cogburn is the most willful, ie the most unconstrainedly homicidal of all the Marshals, a paid “thumper,” and not the best one, he’s the one for her. She doesn’t want the best Marshal, the one who usually brings his prisoners back alive, believing they should have a fair trial. No, she wants the most lethal one, the one most likely to ensure Chaney’s death by bullet—she’ll shoot Chaney herself, “if the law allows it"—or by the noose at the dictate of hanging judge Parker.

Her desire for revenge is soaked in blood. Cogburn’s cross examination is revealing to Mattie and the audience paying sufficient attention to it. He mouths the excuses for killing that the law affords him: self defence, protect another and flight. And he perjures himself under oath—the pigs moved the guy he shot so that the body ends up crouched by the fire with one arm in some pot over or in the fire, says Cogburn—to excuse his cold blooded killing. And there is nothing to gainsay his account. Mattie understands this and Cogburn clearly becomes to her the man for the job.

When Mattie catches up with Cogburn and Leboeuf, crossing the river on her horse, anthropomorphized as Little Blackie, she literally and symbolically leaves civilization behind for elemental nature, where the lines between man and brute and man and his own beastliness are both thin and blurry. Leboeuf, pronounced Lebeef, is sheer meat adorned and badged with Texas Ranger honour, tricked out in foppish department store cowboy finery, slightly epicene, but with all his embroidery matched by his skill, substance, merit and decency.

He is, it turns out, a better Hotspur, who saves his codes of honor from becoming merely honorific by his deeds. Leboeuf, seeking to dignify himself by the totality of his regalia, is a precise contrast with the man dressed up in bear skin and bear face who immerses himself in animality as a means of negotiating and surviving the wilds. The extension of the bear man, and a marker of man’s brutishness in the wilds is the member of Pepper’s gang who only makes animal sounds— as noted by Jakeh. So evil and wrong descend into brutishness.

I contend that on their journey through the territory, Mattie and Cogburn both change. Mattie increasingly infuses her naïve legalism with notions of fairness as when she takes Leboeuf’s side after Cogburn accidentally shoots him—“the plan didn’t go right”—and then blames Leboeuf for being ineffectual. After Cogburn’s lowest point, after he’s bested by Lebeouf in their corn cake shootout, then drunkenly admits defeat in getting Chaney, gives up, and tells Mattie to go her own way, she speaks to Laboeuf.

Partly tendentiously but also sincerely, she tells Leboeuf she sees now that she picked the wrong man and asks if he will he join with her to get Chaney. To say this she must concede that Chaney will be brought to Texas and not to Arkansas to face justice. The blood is now leaking from her desire for revenge. It's becoming less blood soaked. Laboeuf in the movie’s most tender moment tells Mattie he has come to admire her true substance, which, he says, has revealed itself to him as they have gone along.

Cogburn is a burnt out, homicidal, drunken lout, and an inch a way from being sheer beast himself as when one of his plans entails shooting some of Pepper’s gang in the back just so that those remaining will feel the pressure of his pursuit and become easier to contend against. From his lowest point he flat redeems himself in saving Mattie’s life by finally carrying her to help after shooting her horse. Anthropomorphism does not go far in the wilds. And so Little Blackie after doing his horse-best to carry Cogburn and Mattie finally gives out and is mercifully shot. The horse in carrying them both does what horses do, beasts of burden and apple-eaters that they are. But, again, as jakeh beautifully notes, Cogbun in then carrying Mattie does what people do in redeeming themselves from the worst of (their) nature, that empathetic sacrifice at the very foundation of social life.

In the end we see that the girl Mattie is the mother of the woman Mattie, who remains singular, believing, appropriate and judgmental—as noted by Fish. She expects decorum when context demands it and, therefore, tells Frank James, who doesn’t stand up when she takes her leave, “Keep sitting trash.” When she echoes Cole Younger’s phrase “We had some lively times,” they are being understandably euphemistic. What was “lively” for Mattie, and presumably Younger, were life and death, soul riveting experiences in the wilds of the world. Those wilds are now replicated in entertainments, are now transmogrified into burlesque. Something has been gained in town’s relentless push against country and in its civilizing of it, and something spectacular, harrowing but life affirming, now reduced to show business, has been lost.


  1. Lainie said:

    One of your best pieces, I think. It's really nicely written and some of the points are lovely. The concluding paragraph about the loss associated with the "civilized" circus/burlesque theatre was very subtle and beautifully put. I think you have a nice insight about Mattie's transformation - from her initial desire for pure, and potentially ruthless revenge towards a concession that Leboeuf's decency is worthy of her consideration. (Or was that just a desperate move? She had nowhere else to go with Cogburn. The tenderness of the scene makes you think otherwise, but she's a wily negotiator and fully determined to see the plan through.)

    Still, despite it all, and especially by virtue of your subtle arguments, i still don't see a "good vs evil" story here. Mattie wanted what she wanted. We admire her singleminded, straight-shooting and precocious determination. (But we may see those same traits as a little sad in the older Mattie, who has missed out on some of life's gentler pleasures). Cogburn's sort of a lout, who we like despite all of his failings, both ethical and legal. Leboeuf's a decent fellow, who we mock a little for being too caught up in his own decency and for his associated lack of sharp wit and quick retorts. The bad guys were bandits, alright. But not all the bandits were bad guys (the one who dies in that little hut - stabbed by his "partner in crime" seemed to be a tender soul.)

    In any case, wonderfully written and a very good piece.

  2. I liked both your and Lainie's takes, and I loved the movie. But I do see it as a "good vs. evil" story, among other things. Which, these days, is archaic, like its language. (Maybe it always is, a view of the world always a bit unsophisticated and so always out of date, whatever the date -- which may explain something about Mattie's later life.) It's also about justice, which is our attempt to cope with good and evil, and the ambiguous, ragged relationship between law and justice.

    Anyway, I'd agree with you about "grit" as determination in a righteous cause (as distinct, maybe, from mere bravado or physical courage), but disagree that Mattie is motivated by the crude desire for mere blood revenge, even at the start. I think she does change, in recognizing that appearances can't always tell you who has true grit and who doesn't -- i.e., she grows -- but I don't think Cogburn does. His act at the end is just an aspect of his grit, which is what Mattie saw in him from the first.

    I should also mention that the movie is often quite funny, sometimes in a laugh-out-loud way, sometimes macabre (e.g., the man in the bear suit, a Coen bros. touch if ever there was one). I loved it (repeating myself).