3 Stars – Troubling
The Coen brothers’ latest film, “True Grit,” is quality cinema. This period piece, faithfully true to the novel by Charles Portis, presents memorable characters whose courage and resolve can only be described as “grit.” But like their film “No Country for Old Men,” this film also presents a troubling disregard for human life. In a creative juxtaposition, we watch a young fourteen-year-old girl seek vengeance on the man who murdered her father while the soundtrack plays a haunting melody of a Christian hymn expressing the opposite intent: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
The central character is Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld). Her voice-over narrative sets the stage for the story as she describes the murder of her father by “the coward Tom Chaney” (Josh Brolin). A brilliant young woman whose intelligence is matched by both her brashness and boldness, Mattie realizes that the sheriff is not going to pursue her father’s murderer. Obsessed that she must bring Chaney to justice, she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to do so. Although Cogburn is a U.S. Marshall, he has little regard for the people he hunts and takes a cold-hearted approach to the plans he makes. This volatile combination of Mattie’s vengeance with Cogburn’s indifference unites for a violent form of justice that leaves a trail of blood and death in its wake.
Like most Coen films, the message is clearly presented that living such a life takes a toll on those who kill. This is seen in Cogburn’s isolation, but it is also seen in Mattie’s twenty-five year view into the woman she becomes. Also alone and rejecting marriage as well as civility, Mattie’s journey into the world of violent vengeance has fixated her there. Although the film hints that perhaps there was a deep bond between Mattie and Cogburn that reaches through the years, it leaves them apart and alone.
Having the courage to face great hardship and possible harm in the pursuit of justice is an admirable characteristic. However such grit does not define the true stature of a person. Just as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” allowed us to see an unforgiven soul, the Coen brothers’ “True Grit” allows us to see two hardened souls. The spiritual cost paid by both Mattie and Cogburn is measured for all of us to see. Yet, as is true of great story-telling, the Coens also show us the flip-side of their characters, the compassionate and self-sacrificing nature of grit when Cogburn saves Mattie’s life. It is this tension between these contradictory sides of their characters that underlies the film, and is just as troubling when it is evident in our own lives.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Mattie’s ability to negotiate demonstrated ability far beyond her years. Do you think her ability was an asset or a curse? Why do you answer as you do?
2. Mattie’s desire to kill the man who killed her father starts her down a path in which she pays a high price. Do you believe such a decision is moral or immoral? On what basis do you evaluate its morality?
3. The inclusion of the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) gives a different example for Mattie to follow. What do you think is the essential difference between LaBoeuf and Cogburn? What is the similarity between these two lawmen?