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Westerns have always been a dicey genre, one that seems to come and go with more frequency than most. Of the top one hundred highest-grossing films of 2010, True Grit is the only Western (at number 13). That’s an impressive achievement in a time when animation, fantasy and superheroes were ruling the Box Office. They still are. Boosted by its performances, the sharply-written script and attention to period detail, give the film a classic authenticity while feeling almost like a fable.
It tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) who enlists the help of curmudgeonly Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to find the man who murdered her father. He is reluctant at first, and more so when she claims she will ride with him, but relents at her persistence. With them, on his own agenda, is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who clashes with Cogburn on a number of issues, eventually leading them to separate, though all roads lead to one place by the film’s finale.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit is in many ways like a lot of their films, a deliberately-paced study on the human condition. But it is also unlike most of their movies as it is not populated with eccentric and quirky characters in highly-stylized settings. This is simply three people seemingly on the same mission with each enduring a trial of suffering to which each’s own ‘true grit’ must emerge. Using a specific vernacular that lends itself well to the era, there is as much joy in listening to True Grit as there is in watching it. Mattie especially, is a firecracker character who is too young to be cynical but experienced enough to be skeptical. Well-educated and book smart, she has great pliability in her words that often leave those on the other side of her vocal acrobatics tongue-tied and unknowingly satisfying her own needs. Cogburn is a more practical man, unfettered by the details and minutia of a situation, assessing and acting on black and whites. All the shades of gray are left unseen. Their journey begins in conflict. It does not end that way.
There are several terrific moments in True Grit that deserve a closer look but let’s discuss a moment toward the end, which will, by the nature of its place in the film, be a spoiler, though the larger plot details will be avoided. It occurs at the close of a long day, with a wound that drains the life from a girl who has come to mean a lot to a man with no cares.
Having chosen Cogburn because of his reputation for being mean and efficient, Mattie has offered the U.S. Marshall $50 to find a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). He has stolen Mattie’s father’s goods after leaving him for dead. He then fled into “Indian Territory”. The proposal does not sit well with Cogburn at first, but Mattie is persistent. He agrees, but then departs without her, purposefully giving her the wrong time to meet him. She catches up though, and along with LaBoeuf, who seeks Chaney for a murder in Texas, rides away from town. And their pasts.
The journey of course is populated with a number of curious and educational encounters that help Mattie draw closer to Chaney. It also sees a bond tenuously form between her and Cogburn, one where she is witness to some hard, cold facts about the real law in the territories, where the spectre of death rides like a constant companion. The path to Chaney is one strewn with challenges that tests the girl’s heart and commitment, but one she weathers steadily, always with Cogburn at her side. He becomes the truest thing in her unbalanced life. He is steady in his resolve, a flawed man with a principled foundation. Trust is hard earned in these parts. He has hers.
Much happens that leads her to the open face ridge overlooking a valley where a significant encounter between Cogburn and some outlaws occurs. As this terrifying moment elapses, she is suddenly faced with a choice of her own that is one she has vocally prepared herself for many times in the ride to this point but as it happens is one more made from desperation than planning. At its end, she has lost her footing and fallen backwards into a narrow crevice where she becomes entangled in roots, preventing her from falling further. She discovers a boney corpse nestled in the shadows beside her. In it, she sees a knife sheathed on his belt and believes it a way to get out. Unfortunately, living in the dried guts of the cadaver is a host of vipers who awaken when she tears at the man’s clothes.
The rattlesnakes wriggle out of the body and encircle Mattie, who screams for help. Relieved at last when Cogburn, whom she thought was lost in the valley, arrives, he tosses a rope and quickly descends to her rescue, but not before a snake bites Mattie on the hand. Cogburn kills them all and attends to her wound, cutting her skin and attempting to suck out the poison. “Look away, now,” he softly commands. But he knows it’s not enough. LeBoeuf joins the effort and helps pull the two out of the crevice and with great desperation, Cogburn mounts Mattie’s horse with her in his arms and breaks for the town, many, many miles away.
The ride falls into the dead of night as the waning girl slips into a lucid acceptance of her fate, while Cogburn pushes the animal under them to speeds it can no longer keep. The horse, exhausted and driven to its last gasp of breath, fails and collapses. Cogburn puts it down and then, refusing to give up, cradles the girl in his arms and runs the distance to a conclusion I’ll leave you to discover.
The symbolism of the snake bite and rescue mirror the journey of revenge and redemption. Metaphorically, the fissure in the rocks is a pit she has created for herself, the consequences of an action she thinks will be easy, even earned. It is not. There seems no escape. At the bottom of this pit is the dead body, representing her father, full of vipers, slithering beasts that carry a poison that can overcome and claim you. Mattie’s obsession with hunting down and murdering her father’s killer is that poison, a toxin that has clouded her so, she has left her own family to seek its end. Now consumed, it is Cogburn, a man of great fortitude, experience and self-sacrifice, who on his own journey of redemption, to discover that there is still goodness in this world. He becomes her savior, and she, his.
The moment might seem curious at first, as much of the plot seems already concluded. Why bother with the pit and the snake and the ride when the journey has, for the sake of the core story, already finished? But that’s the power of this moment, for when it comes to that long ride, a beautiful, aching sequence that sees the two enter the dark with fates unknown, we understand the hunt for Tom Chaney was not the story but rather the catalyst for something else entirely. They pass through much of what they have has already seen, Mattie witnessing where they’ve come and understanding what it means. She sees the fading sun drop behind the distant hills as Cogburn pushes on and we sense that she is seeing the end of not just this day but all days to come. As she begins to go, she mutters that “he’s getting away” and Cogburn asks who? “Tom Chaney,” she says. It’s the poison holding strong. Meanwhile, Carter Burwell‘s haunting, lilting piano lures us further into the depths and we ride along in wonder. This is a great moment.
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen (screenplay), Ethan Coen (screenplay)
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld