The Coen Brothers occupy a Hollywood niche that implies subversion while reinforcing conservatism. “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” and “No Country for Old Men” are morality tales in which a flawed – but invariably handsome and charismatic – protagonist trespasses upon a preternaturally obsessive villain who pursues the former for the remainder of the movie. The formula takes an off-kilter tone through the use of ostensibly Texan dialogue that is earthy, laconic, and melodiously articulate. Like most of their films, “True Grit” – an adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel – combines a putatively subversive – more quirky – form with conservative content.
Much of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from Portis’s book, and it is delivered as if the actors were reading it off the page, effectively reminding viewers that they are watching a tale, and making it all the more enjoyable for this paradoxical postmodern earnestness. The tale is absorbing, as long, patient shots of beautiful landscapes and attractive actors, combined with elegant scenes of taut violence, pace the plot. But the visual and thematic core of the quest for vengeance/coming of age story is its 14-year-old protagonist Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is determined to restore honor to her murdered father by capturing his partner-turned-killer (Josh Brolin). Spiritedly joining the world of men – she has contempt for her indecisive mother – Mattie rejects the injustice of a system that pursues criminals based on the power of their victims. Unaware that she is young and female and thereby traditionally unsuited for her task, Mattie overcomes a variety of male adversaries who are charmed, confounded, outwitted, outtalked, and out-”gritted” by her. Valorization of the father is of course patriarchy 101 – or just see politicians’ favorite biographical subjects – and it is noteworthy how Mattie, vulnerable and beautiful, becomes “male” through avenging hers.
First, it is significant – and surely a strike against realism, if any is intended – that Mattie, while humored and patronized, is never explicitly sexually objectified. The only reference to her being physically desirable is made by the boyish and buffoonish Texas Ranger Labouf (an excellent Matt Damon) who merely notes that he could have kissed her while she was sleeping but decided, he protests too much, that she was too unattractive for his tastes. This coddling of headstrong-to-the-point-of-domineering Mattie (even her nemesis is strangely reluctant to kill her) brings to mind the far more reality-based and critical film “The Ballad of Little Jo,” which, based on a true story, depicts a woman who would rather disfigure herself and live as a man than endure the unrestrained brutality of the nineteenth-century west. That is, the Coens suggest a self-actualizing (but ultimately empty) freedom for anyone with “true grit,” although this grit is in fact supported by the chivalry, compassion, and heroism of paternalistic benefactors.
While critics such as Stanley Fish comment on the film’s supposedly meaningless and irrational violence, the film in fact portrays violence as being socially – specifically racially – structured. Among three men awaiting imminent hanging, only the Native American is deprived of saying his piece before the execution. Far less critically, Rooster (Bridges) gratuitously assaults two Choctaw children about Mattie’s age, earning a cheap and sadistic laugh from the audience.
Indeed, Mattie’s men don’t valorize her because she is a pretty, young girl per se, but because as a white, Bible-quoting young woman she is “civilization” glamorously and tenderly personified. Mattie buys and tames a black pony, taking it from a young Black boy and, with no further comment, christening the horse “Little Blackie.” Exemplifying a burgeoning capitalism and its rule of law – which even rebels cow to — Mattie throws her weight around with money and by invoking contracts and ownership rights. After she overwhelms the horse trader by threatening to sue him, she buffaloes individualistic, self-sufficient Rooster by invoking her rights as his employer. Notwithstanding his claims to autonomy, she, not he, controls his labor, and Rooster participates in this disempowerment not because he is awed by her beauty and grit, but because her beauty disguises the fact that her grit is nothing more than the inexorable workings of a misanthropic machine.
I’ve read no review of the film that mentions Mattie’s conventional attractiveness or the tacit sexual tension underscoring her relationships. After (spoiler alert) killing Chaney (Brolin), Mattie immediately falls into a pit where she’s bitten by a snake. Not especially subtle, we are supposed to see that Mattie has lost her innocence. Increasingly paternalistic Rooster, however, sucks out the venom and brings her to safety – killing “Little Blackie” along the way.
And while we are supposed to be moved when (more spoiler alert) Rooster saves Mattie’s life, his self-sacrifice in fact preserves the embodiment of a system that is destined to domesticate and degrade him – as he indeed spends his later years as a carnival attraction. While Mattie’s adult incarnation is even more spiteful, sanctimonious, and priggish than her cuter, younger version, Rooster’s docility vis-à-vis this tyrant makes self-subordination cool. Who doesn’t want to be like Jeff Bridges?
Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org