Life isn't fair, they say.
There is no such thing as perfect justice, they say.
We live in a flawed and hollow place, they say, where sometimes the innocent wither and the guilty thrive, where cheaters prosper and horses die.
But "they" never got word to Mattie Ross.
Mattie, a loquacious tornado in the guise of a 14-year-old girl, knows ours is far from a perfect world. Her father was gunned down by drifter Tom Chaney, and "not a soul could be bothered to give chase." She's suffered through more than her share of pain and hardship.
Life, she knows, isn't fair … but maybe it will be once she's through with it.
She drives a hard bargain with a local businessman as she's settling some of her father's financial affairs, including refunding the $100 he spent on four ponies. Then she buys one of the ponies back for $10 and turns her attention to a pressing matter: bringing Tom Chaney to justice.
Mattie and her newly acquired pony can't do it alone, of course. So she hires Rooster Cogburn, an old, fat, one-eyed, liquored-up killer who somehow wormed his way into a U.S. marshalship. He's a frontier pragmatist who'd rather plug a common criminal than cart him back for trial. He's saved taxpayers 23 such trials to date, and that makes him just the sort of lawman Mattie's looking for. He's got true grit, she tells him.
But another lawman—this one a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf—wants in on the action too. Seems Chaney also shot a senator down in the Lone Star State, and LaBoeuf wants to haul him before a court and collect a healthy reward.
To have Chaney strung up for another murder, Mattie thinks, wouldn't be fair to her father. And when LaBoeuf and Cogburn decide to join forces, trying to leave her behind, she's just sure that's a big breech of contract. So she grabs her dad's gun, hops on her trusty 10-buck steed and takes off after them, flinging herself and her horse into a brown, cold river to cross into Indian territory.
Grit? Sorry, Rooster. Seems Mattie could teach you a thing or two about the word.
You've got to like Mattie's gumption. Sure, we can (and will) quibble with her desire to avenge her father's death with a lump of lead. But context is important here, and we all know that justice back in the Old West often climaxed at the end of a rope. Mattie wants to see "justice" done as her time defines it. And it's not like she's opposed to a proper trial and execution.
Rooster's merely her tool in the beginning—the means to reach a desirable end. She certainly doesn't approve of his legion of bad habits. (Neither she nor LaBoeuf like the way he drinks.) Rooster himself tells us that his first wife left him because the "love of decency" didn't abide in him. But that's not altogether true. He shows a fatherly affection for Mattie and, in the end, he risks his life to save hers.
If the film has a moral underpinning, that's arguably it. The characters we see, be they over-the-hill lawmen or preening Rangers or 14-year-old girls, hide drums of goodness and grit few would guess were there, and perhaps they didn't realize themselves. Only darkness brings those traits to light; it's the trials that told them of what they were made. That's a good reminder for us all.
True Grit begins with a quotation from Proverbs ("The wicked flee when none pursueth"), and the entire film has an Old Testament tang to it. We hear folks talk of God's grace and mercy, but what we see is old-school retribution. Mattie's pursuit of Chaney, to me, feels akin to the biblical concept of blood vengeance, where a killer might be pursued and killed by his victim's family unless he escaped to a city of refuge. I don't think it's an accident my mind jumped in that direction, either. The Coen brothers often explore religious themes in their work, and they spackle spirituality all over this film, from its hymn-driven soundtrack to regular allusions to God.
"There's nothing free except the grace of God," Mattie says, and writes her mother not to worry when she's on her quest to avenge her father's death: "The author of all things watches over me." When a mortician asks her whether she'd like to kiss her father's dead face, she says, "Thank you, his spirit is flown." In town without money, she's forced to sleep in a coffin at the mortuary, telling someone later that she "felt like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones."
A dying criminal makes Rooster promise to tell his brother, a Methodist pastor, of his fate, adding, "I will meet him later, walking the streets of glory."
Ranger LaBoeuf sneaks into Mattie's room while she's sleeping and, shortly after she wakes up, admits that he considered stealing a kiss—though she is "very young" and "unattractive." After sitting on the receiving end of her unvarnished opinions for a bit, though, LaBoeuf thinks she deserves a spanking instead. One would be just as bad as the other, Mattie tells him.
The Coens' Old West is a place where violent death is an everyday thing, and a stray corpse is barely worth a pause. In the framework of the film, most of the protagonist-caused fatalities are the result of them trying to protect themselves or someone else. Still, Rooster kills more than his fair share. Before he joins Mattie, we learn that he killed 23 people as a marshal ("I never shot anybody I didn't have to," he swears), and he adds another half-dozen to his tally before the credits roll. One takedown involves a point-blank bullet to someone's head, and we see blood spray against the wall. Mattie and LaBoeuf both shoot folks too.
One bad guy kills another (who had already been shot in the leg by Rooster) to prevent him from revealing too much information. Before he stabs him in the chest, he cuts off the victim's fingers. (We see a couple of them on the table.) Mattie and Rooster find a body (strung up in a tree) being gnawed on by a vulture. Rooster tells Mattie to climb up and cut the thing down. Of course it lands with a thud on its head. We see three people hanged, and they drop with jarring thunks.
When Mattie braves the river to join LaBoeuf and Rooster, LaBoeuf pushes her down and paddles her by way of punishment—first with a bare hand and then with a nearby switch. He doesn't stop until Rooster points a gun at him. It's the mildest bit of trouble Mattie finds herself in for a good long while. Before her journey is done, she's been hit, shoved and kidnapped. An outlaw grinds his boot into her face while pointing a gun at her. Chaney puts a blade to her throat. Rooster roughly knocks around a couple of kids who've been tormenting a donkey.
[Spoiler Warning] Mattie tumbles into a deep pit and finds snakes using a skeletal corpse's ribcage as a nest. One of the snakes bites her, and Rooster's forced to cut an X into the wound to suck out the poison. She still needs immediate attention, though, so they both get on Mattie's horse and ride for hours and hours across the countryside, looking for help. Rooster spurs and whips the horse to exhaustion, pushing the pony beyond its breaking point. When it collapses, he shoots it in the head, then picks up Mattie and carries her himself—his labored gasping mirroring the horse's final desperate breaths.
Horses get shot during a battle. There's talk of women and children massacred during the Civil War. Rooster promises Mattie that he'll flay the soles of her father's killer's feet if it will make her feel better.
Crude or Profane Language
An indistinct f-word is joined by quite clear uses of "b‑‑ch," "b‑‑tard" and "h‑‑‑." God's name is abused a half-dozen times, most often with "d‑‑n." Rooster refers to Native American as "Injuns."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Rooster uses most of Mattie's $50 down payment to buy whiskey, which he drinks to excess. He goes on a world-class bender during their trek to find Chaney—so much so that LaBoeuf decides to part company. "This is no longer a manhunt," he says. "This is a debauch."
Other Negative Elements
Rooster tells Mattie he once robbed a "high interest bank" in New Mexico, insisting it was OK because you can't rob from robbers.
"It is still stealing," Mattie insists.
"That's the position they took in New Mexico," Rooster admits.
The first time Mattie talks with Rooster, he's in an outhouse.
True Grit is a remake of a 1969 John Wayne film, which in turn was based on a 1968 book. And while the original movie is considered a classic and earned Wayne his only Academy Award, the new version is a better movie.
It's also more foul. More violent. And harder to watch.
The Coen brothers readjust the spotlight a bit, allowing it to rest less on Rooster Cogburn and more on Mattie Ross. They reject the overt hero worship of the original and instead keep us a step removed, which makes their film darker, richer and wryer.
But there's something else at play here. Though some of these new heroes claim to be both moral and spiritual, there's a sad, smirking cynicism that undergirds True Grit: There is no mercy in this world of ours, we're told, no real justice, temporal or eternal. We're forced, like Mattie, to make our own.
Not even justice is at the center of this story, though. Mattie carries her father's gun in a flour sack. "I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it," she says. Clearly, that's not justice. That's vengeance. And since the Coens are so fond of quoting the Bible, they really should've added Romans 12:19 to the mix: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
In the end, though, what happens to Chaney feels almost inconsequential. There's no sense of exultation, no wellspring of despair as circumstances force Mattie and Rooster to move quickly on. Whether Chaney's alive or dead scarcely seems to matter. What matters is …
That we live?
That we have each other?
Even those ideals feel incomplete.
The ambiguity is both mesmerizing and maddening, for here we find an antique land—much like our own modern one—where the innocent strive and suffer, where the guilty are both punished and do the punishing. It is a place where horses stumble and are shot. Grit is the stuff inside us that pushes us on, step by—in the case of this film—bloody step.