You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements.
—La Boeuf (Matt Damon)
Sofkee always cooks up bigger than you think.
—Moon (Domhnall Gleeson)
When 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) gets her first glimpse of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), he’s in a courtroom. The prosecutor is keen to show the federal marshal has shot a man without cause, but witness is unrattled. Leaning back in his chair, his hair slicked and his Sunday suit ill-fitting, he insists he “never shot nobody I didn’t have to,” peering at his questioner with his one good eye. “You sprang from cover!” accuses the lawyer, “With your revolver in hand, loaded and cocked.” Rooster rolls his neck and mutters, “Well, if it ain’t cocked, it don’t shoot.” The courtroom audience chuckles, the prosecutor persists, and the camera remains on Rooster, his mouth turned into something like a smile.
A few questions later, the marshal is pressed to explain the position of the body, not close to where it should have been if his story is true. He cannot. “If that’s where the body was,” he grumbles. “I might have moved him. I do not remember.” Pressed again, he looks away: “Them hogs rooting around, they might have moved him.” And then he fixes his most terrible gaze on the man who would doubt him, repeating, “I do not remember.”
Here True Grit cuts from the courtroom to Rooster’s exit, without detailing how the case turns out. Instead, making his way down the courthouse staircase, he comes upon his next trial. Mattie stands directly in front of him, her eyes fixed on his face, even as he turns away to focus on the cigarette he’s rolling. “Mr. Cogburn,” she says brightly, “They tell me you’re a man with true grit,” she says. Impressed by his prior performance, she’s found the fellow she means to hire, who will help her avenge her father’s murder. He is, she’s been told, “a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” He’s also not inclined to bring his prisoners in alive. For Mattie, that’s a plus.
In revisiting Charles Portis’ novel, Joel and Ethan Coen have done what you might expect. Their film makes plain the violence that shapes Mattie’s experience, and also her appreciation for elaborate, ordering language. As the courtroom scene exemplifies, Rooster is estimable not only because he might have killed about 12 or 15 or 23 men during his four years as a lawman, but also because he grasps the crucial effects of words, the ways they mold understanding and impose meaning. Words—even more than electricity and organized banking—are remaking the west so that it is less wild.
On its surface, True Grit is much like other Westerns, following an unlikely crew—here, Mattie and Rooster and a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Matt Damon)—as they seek out a murderer, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). But it clarifies the relationship between their very rugged physical adventure (engaged on horseback, facing harsh weather and hardhearted villains) and their storytelling, their repeated efforts to claim control of the brutality they encounter and enact.
To be sure, none begins with a precisely noble goal. Rooster agrees to throw in with this “brief girl with stories with stories of El Dorado,” for the money and La Boeuf has his own reputation in mind (he’s been tracking Tom Chaney unsuccessfully, or, as Mattie puts it, has “been eluded the winter-long by a half-wit”). Mattie’s own mission is premised on a notion of justice that can’t possibly exist, a belief that payback can right the wrong done to her. As their shared route to such disparate-seeming ends brings them together, the trio performs what seems a civilizing process, the kind of ritual done in John Ford movies by weddings and funerals. They talk and they ponder, and by the end, amid blood and gunpowder and pain, they sort out an order, that is, a way to live with what they’ve seen and done.
These experiences are remarkable and even existential in their own right, including the not wholly intended killing of a couple of suspects, and their own injuries, reminders not so much of mortality as of life. When, during a gunfight, La Boeuf bites “almost through” his own tongue, he not only suffers that immediate and certainly dire hurt, but also the difficulty of his impaired speech for the rest of the film. This hardly keeps him from engaging in debate with Rooster, for instance, over the concept of malum in se, “the distinction between an act that is wrong in itself,” Mattie explains, “and an act that is wrong only according to our laws and mores.” Rooster, no surprise, rejects his compatriots’ instruction in Latin. “I’m struck,” he says, as the trio huddles before a not quite cozy hearth fire, “That La Boeuf has been shot, brambled, and nearly severed his tongue, not only does he not cease to talk, but he spills the banks of English.”
The camera cuts from Rooster’s expression of frustration to La Boeuf’s contemplation, as he goes on to describe the instance that made him wonder about the morality of his work. Just so, the film will go on, more than once, to juxtapose talk and action, choices made in split seconds, to show how, as hard as men (and Mattie) try to justify their violence, they also find they cannot, exactly. This isn’t to say they all agree, but still, Mattie is eager to learn: when Rooster explains that shooting someone in the back “will give ‘em to know our intentions is serious,” Mattie is only temporarily taken aback. “I’m hopeful” he goes on, “That three of their party being dead will take the starch out of ‘em.” Her expression remains unchanged as she responds, “You display great poise.”
Such poise is what counts in True Grit, which, like so many other Coen brothers’ films, examines an impossible human condition, teetering between sense and chaos, pretending the former might prevail. When the threesome does at last and inevitably come on Tom Chaney, he’s thrown in with the woolly-chapped criminal Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper), which means there’ll be a shootout involving a number of guns. Mattie steps into this mess with determination to do a right thing, even as the costs spiral beyond her reckoning. And even as she tells her story—narrating the film’s start and finish—the perspective shifts repeatedly, indicating not only her shifting insights, but also, more literally, accommodating the views of men taking life and death decisions.
Just so, at one of several climaxes, she observes from afar an exchange between Ned Pepper and Rooster, one atop his horse and bleeding profusely and the other de-horsed, laid out on the ground, an easy target. “Well, Rooster,” sums up Ned Pepper, “I’m shot to pieces.” Mattie can’t hear them speak, but she watches from a hill alongside La Beouf, who watches through his rifle-sight. Ned Pepper takes aim at the same moment as La Beouf, Mattie watching all. The sound of a shot echoes, Ned Pepper barely moves, the frame on him being so distant as to make it difficult to make him out. A close up of her face cuts to a long image of Ned Pepper falling and then a ground level shot of Rooster, watching his adversary fall forcefully into the dust before him. The reason for killing, however it’s worded, can’t match that hard dull thud.