January 16th, 2011

True Grit rides anew and leaves Stanley in the dust

The characters in the Coen brothers film are geared to work against both the Old Testament bleakness of the novel and the Waynesian joie de vivre of the first film.

Mattie in the film, at fourteen, is a relentless robotic harridan-to-be, expressing thru caricature the bleak worldview that Stanley Fish here extracts from the novel and offers as the spiritual key to the new film.

Mattie’s been trained as a bookkeepper and, we find, knows nothing about life and justice on the great frontier. Most comico-tragically, she badgers the tumbleweeds of the prairie with threats or promises of treatment by her lawyer. Finally poor Ned shuts her up, for us all, by responding that what he needs is a “good JUDGE” — yearning, it seems, for the Good News god and His mercy as deadly accidents set in train by Mattie’s thirst for revenge snake about his neck like a noose.

Cogburn steadily provides the antidote of worldly experience to Mattie’s booklearning and naive rationalism. Eg, he instructs and insists that Ned Chaney hung in Texas for shooting a senator is as good as Arkansas for shooting Mattie’s pa — and that the financial benefits of the former settle the case. Let’s be reasonable.

The only bit of this Cogburn we see in Mattie is when she goes a bit soft on LaBoeuf, who, at the extreme from her take-no-prisoners egomania, espouses the chivalrous naivete of the Cavalier society that settled Texas. Cogburn, in between, does his best to moderate the romance, but Mattie’s headstrong stone-hearted quest for vengeance must leave Quixote in the dust. “Ever stalwart,” he sadly affirms, too late to be heard, as she rides into the sunset in search of her devil.

A quarter century thence, at film’s end, we see that Mattie’s blindered pursuit of her ideal brought her to a barren life. She is, at 40, an echo of Miss Gulch — from The Wizard of the Oz — an irredeemable witch peculiar to the frontier who demonstrates no more curiosity or compassion for things human than she did at fourteen. She strides through the colorful marvels of a city and a circus without a sidelong glance, and her very last line is an imperious insult — “Keep your seat, trash!” — to an old man who failed to rise in her bristling presence.

The film’s coda, then, cements the notion (which sprouted for me about halfway thru) that the last thing one must do with this story is respect the barbaric worldview of its motor-mouthed bookkeeping upstart protagonist.

Naturally, then, one looks elsewhere — to Jeff Bridge’s Cogburn, who shares the joy of John Wayne’s but whose every decision is shot through by social psychology, and who recognizes a good deal of himself in all the bad guys: “I know him!” he keeps moaning to Mattie as the hapless of the earth wander into his crosshairs.

In short: The last thing I see in this Cogburn is the amoral gunslinging paraclete that Stanley Fish is at such pains to paint.

Affinities between the Old Testament and the amoral Predeterminism of certain Christian schools are oft remarked. And it’s a familiar turn in American letters to use the Old Testament to gloss the New World.

Alfred Kazin was a master of this, and his essays on Lincoln — whom he finds caught between the South’s fundamental sin and the relentless paracletes of Abolition — are among the assessments of the American character that I treasure.

But Mr Fish, falling short of Kazin, offers an impoverished reading of the new film, whether out of doctrine (his distinctive nihilism) or innocently, as it were, I don’t know. What seems clear is that the Coen brothers set out to Deconstruct the novel’s heroine, as a spiritually barren witch — and it’s odd that Perfesser Fish of all people would not notice.

By film’s end I even wonder if she was telling the truth about her devil Ned Chaney.

However that may be, it’s odd to find her, twenty-five years later, venerating Cogburn’s memory and yet so unchanged, so blindly made of stone after all these years. T’would seem that authentic veneration might have tenderized her hide a hair. Perhaps we are to sense that subterranean guilt, for having dragged Cogburn and the rest into her hell, is the real reason she transports his grave to the barren hilltop where her parents lie.

In any case, I mourn for this Cogburn as he tries to rest in peace with Mattie Gulch’s blank stare and recitations from the Bible falling upon his bones.

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  1. Rob Crutchfield says:

    Bill, you seem to me to have nailed that final scene. Miss Gulch came to my mind too. (And if you and I noticed the resemblance, nobody in the movie world can have missed it. So I’m sure it was intended.)

    On the other hand, the young Mattie is liked by every likable character; even Chaney likes her until she actually shoots him. Ned Pepper is friendly to her, LaBoeuf takes risks to protect her, and Cogburn almost kills himself to save her life. And WE like her; we root for her, even as we’re horrified by her barbaric ethic of vengeance.

    The young Mattie seems driven more by duty and by determination itself than by anger or cold hatred. She’s even capable of a slight softening toward Chaney, offering him the use of her lawyer–but not promising to drop the charge, as she would if she were merely lying. She has the kind of frankness that shows respect, not contempt; and at various moments she seems likely to outgrow her harshness and mature into a warm and compassionate person.

    Is it too far-fetched to read the rattlesnake scene symbolically? In her naive determination, she forgot about the pit, and fell in; she received the serpent’s poison, a spirit of violence and retribution more evil than anything driving Chaney or Ned. And it didn’t kill her–thanks to Cogburn’s compassion and sacrifice–but it crippled her for life. Something like that, maybe?

    January 17th, 2011 at 12:35 am

  2. ed says:


    Everything you say Rob seems on target.

    It is certainly true that everyone who meets the young Mattie comes to respect and like her, after getting over her abrupt manners.

    And the snake pit … I hadn’t thought about that much at all. But I imagine the writer-director team did, a lot, and along lines you suggest.

    She Fell from Grace there, one might say, in the deeply premeditated act of blowing Ned Chaney to Hell.

    My piece above was Shot From the Hip hot after seeing the film, having read the Fish piece prior and feeling a bit misled by Stanley’s compulsion to bleach all experience of meaning.

    Rereading my bit I see any number of things that are either unclear or insufficient.

    I had no intention of seeing the film, after reading the Fish. Fortunately a friend was in town with daughter and True Grit was the ticket.

    January 17th, 2011 at 10:08 am

  3. ed says:

    ( First draft of this bit was posted as a comment — number 315 — to Stanley’s piece in the Times. )

    January 17th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

  4. ed says:

    Thinking about the snake pit, Rob, I see that Fish does touch on it — but with characteristic nihilism that in this case seems to me phony propaganda — a false report of the film’s story:


    In the novel and in the Coens’ film it is always like [this]: Things happen, usually bad things (people are hanged, robbed, cheated, shot, knifed, bashed over the head and bitten by snakes), but they don’t have any meaning, except the meaning that you had better not expect much in this life because the brute irrationality of it all is always waiting to smack you in the face.

    This is what happens to Mattie at the very instant of her apparent triumph as she shoots Tom Chaney, her father’s killer, in the head. The recoil of the gun propels her backwards and she falls into a snake-infested pit.

    Years later, as the narrator of the novel, she recalls the moment and says: “I had forgotten about the pit behind me.” There is always a pit behind you and in front of you and to the side of you. That’s just the way it is.


    I mean really. He casts the Fall into the Pit as a meaningless blow on the head …

    Why does the Times publish such empty and ill-argued stuff?

    January 17th, 2011 at 2:35 pm

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