First, like many Hollywood westerns, True Grit boasts grand cinematography. Although barren deserts, leafless forests, and muddy streams don’t sound particularly majestic, they can be — especially when framed by someone who understands the significance of land/landscape to the American western. After all, in this genre the scenery often surfaces as a character itself as well as an extension of the western hero/cowboy; it is both the terrestrial progenitor from which he (and occasionally she) is brought forth and that which he ultimately seeks to tame.
Fortunately, the Coen brothers know this. Lovingly, they frame the land and the (human) characters. Extreme long shots like the first three below position the main players and their bodies as small and insignificant amid the Body of the West, mere specks of dust that must work doubly hard to tame this vast unruly force of nature. Yet in the last two shots, the characters appear at one with the scenery, the costumes, background, lighting complementing one another naturally. Either way, the viewer of True Grit can tell that the characters both fall and rise up from their surroundings, which in turn, make them what they are:
- gritty and washed-up (Jeff Bridges’s Ruben “Rooster” Cogburn)
- hopeful and braggadocios (Matt Damon’s Mr. LeBoeuf)
- fearless and determined (Hallie Steinfeld’s Mattie Ross)
As a result, I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of Roger Deakins’s cinematography: it “reminds us of the glory that was, and can still be, the Western.” (More fantastic screenshots like the ones below may be found at the True Grit Wiki.)
The second element of True Grit I appreciate is the somber nondiegetic music that opens and closes the film and is softly peppered throughout, a leisurely-paced instrumental version of the nineteenth-century hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
Though they claim True Grit is too violent for kids, several Christian review sites are recommending the film not only because of the message of this hymn (e.g., both we and Mattie rest on God’s everlasting arms), but also because of the opening title card, which features Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked run away when no one is chasing them”), and Mattie’s voiceovers, which reference prayers and “the grace of God.” One site even claims that True Grit is one of those rare Hollywood movies that “doesn’t back down from Christianity, keeping in step with the faith foundation many early Americans had in that time” (CBN).
While I can appreciate this reading, it is not completely accurate; the film focuses much more on violence, death, kidnapping, murder, and vengeance than faith, God, or nineteenth-century Christian values. Additionally, these characters do not rely on faith or religion to survive or attain their goals, but on themselves, the landscape, and each other. Still, the incorporation and repetition of this sobering version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is powerful and sets the tone. (More on the hymns and music in True Grit here.)
With that said, at least four elements of True Grit bother me enough to grade it with a slightly above average score (C+):
First, at times, I can see Jeff Bridges and Hallie Steinfeld acting. I’m not 100% sure how to describe this, but what I mean is that the actors do not seem fully invested in certain scenes, most of which take place at the beginning of the film, e.g., when Cogburn is on the courtroom stand, when Mattie approaches Cogburn for the first time (face to face, not outside the out-house), and when Cogburn (drunk and in pajamas) finally agrees to take on Mattie’s request to find her father’s killer, Tom Chaney. In these scenes, Bridges’s and Steinfeld’s eyes do not seem truly focused on what’s or who’s before them, and their bodies appear tight and awkward when they speak and react; they’re not nearly as natural as they are in the middle and end of the film. In any event, all of this is distracting and takes me out of the diegesis.
Second, the characters annoyingly avoid contractions. After I complained about this on Twitter, a couple of friends responded that Charles Portis’s book (from which this film is apparently very faithfully adapted) doesn’t employ contractions either. In fact, a reviewer from The Daily Beast praises True Grit (both film and book) because it is “written in that vernacular, the speech of people who, while they may have been illiterate, were raised on readings of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, an English practically devoid of contractions and Latinate words.” Okay, perhaps these are historically accurate representations of “the rhythms and cadences of late-19th century Southern speech,” and maybe they work on the page. But onscreen, phrases like I do not and I cannot and She will not sound stilted and unnatural, especially flowing out of the mouths of southern characters who are habitually known to slur their words.
Third, Bridges’s “Rooster” Cogburn is too gruff. Yes, Cogburn’s supposed to be grizzly, gruff, and crotchety: “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn,” a man in the film informs Mattie. “He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.” All of this is fine and perfectly in sync with the genre, etc. However, at the start of the film, Bridges’s voice is too gruff, too grating. Rather than suggesting huskiness and “double-toughness,” it resembles a middle-aged man personifying his chain-smoking grandfather. When he spews his lines, the actor’s throat rattles and sounds an octave too deep — and not in a good way like Johnny Cash or any of the Baldwin brothers.
[Please note: spoiler about the film's ending below.]
Finally, I found myself frustrated by True Grit‘s conventional ending. Before I explain this, I should point out that much of True Grit is unconventional, at least where female characters are concerned. This is one reason I wanted to see the film. For example, normally in westerns, frontierswomen represent “the forces of civilization, embodying the values of family, community, education, domestication, and cultivation that informs the male hero’s transformation of the wilderness into a garden” (Belton 251). In brief, women and girls are relegated, as many were in “real life,” to a secondary status that revolved around domesticity and familial stability. However, in True Grit, Mattie does not fit this bill. While her motives to find Tom Chaney are grounded in family duty and pride, her essence, business sense, hard-headedness, and fearlessness have nothing to do with domestication or civilization. At fourteen, she is independent and active.
If I were teaching right now, I’d ask, “Because Mattie is independent and active, what will likely happen to her?” And my film students would respond: “She will probably be punished.” That’s right; in typical Hollywood fashion, Mattie is punished for her independent and strong-willed ways. Frustration! Throughout the film, I’ve seen Mattie bargain for what she wants, brave the elements, and kill her father’s murderer. And what does she receive in return? A snake bite that causes her to lose an arm and live the remainder of her life as “an old maid.” (Mattie’s also saved in the end by Cogburn and LeBoeuf, another typical fate for independent women.)
Mattie’s closing voiceover informs the viewer that she never found love or married because she “just didn’t find the time for it.” On its own, that’s acceptable. Women don’t need to marry; women don’t have to “find the time” for romance if they are off doing other things. But that’s not quite the message from the film (or from Hollywood in general). You see, when onscreen women are scarred, marred, maimed, etc. they are usually no longer viable in the world; they do not fit in and/or are unaccepted (see my post “Stars and Scars” for more).
In the case of True Grit, Mattie’s autonomy in her youth leads her to become a (disfigured) spinster — a term/stereotype that carries with it a social stigma of ugliness (e.g., her amputation removed her potential beauty and marriageability), frumpiness, downtroddenness, and depression. Another term that fits here is steely, which is unfortunately, but expectedly, how several critics describe the adult Mattie at the film’s end.
12/27/10: I’ve written a follow-up post “True Grit, Mattie’s Fate, and Testing Onscreen Women.” Please read it before you comment on my thoughts here.
12/28/10: I never intended to spend this much time thinking and writing about True Grit as it wasn’t a film that greatly affected me as I watched it. But since I have lived with, researched, and discussed it with others for the past three days, I admit that I’ve come to appreciate the film more than I did after I exited the theater and subsequently wrote this post. Now, when I consider True Grit in its entirety, I see that what bothered me about it are relatively minor quibbles, some of which are even worked out as the film moves forward (e.g., Bridges eventually stops overacting, and both he and Steinfeld settle into the roles so that they I can’t see them acting anymore). So while I still find the epilogue problematic, I’m changing my grade from a C+ to a somewhere between a B and B+. (Btw, here’s another person who claims that including the epilogue is “not a good idea.”) =)
01/01/11: Somehow my (controversial!) thoughts about the ending of True Grit have become scattered about the Web; therefore, rather than commenting individually to each person/post, I thought I’d locate my responses here. After all, most of the people who disagree with me are debating the same thing — that my reading of the epilogue is too harsh and/or too reliant on film theory or previous onscreen representations of gender.
But here’s what else I’m also noticing: at least 80% of the people who disagree with me about the portrayal of adult Mattie have read the book on which the film is based. And according to those who’ve read Portis’s novel (again, I have not), Mattie grows up to be equally as independent and spunky as she was in the narrative proper; moreover, she apparently not only works at, but also owns and manages the town bank. In other words, her womanhood/personhood is not defined by her marital status, steely demeanor, or severed arm. As one online observer claims, “She was a spunky strong-willed girl who would do whatever it takes to get what she needs. Also, [in her youth] she was a shrewd bargainer and haggler. That would all pay off for her later in life as she becomes a well-to-do bank owner .” Another viewer who’s also read the novel writes, “[Adult] Mattie would sneer at the suggestion that she is ‘physically challenged.’ She is instead ‘a woman with brains and a frank tongue.’ She loves her church and her bank, expresses Scripture and platitudes of Presbyterian piety with black humor, and triumphs as a woman we can all admire.”
But I’m not sure the Coens’s epilogue shows us these attributes in full or at least in enough light that the viewer could read between the lines. Walking staunchly down a dirt road, exhuming a friend’s body, and calling a man who won’t rise in the presence of a woman trash does not necessarily equate to the character these viewers/readers are describing. I’m wondering, then, if my “opponents” are merging their experience/familiarity with the book’s characterization of Mattie and what they’re seeing/hearing onscreen. Similarly, as fellow blogger/Twitterer Craig Kennedy pondered yesterday on Twitter, I wonder if I (having read the book first) might do the same?