True Grit

January 27, 2011

The world of inspired-bys, adaptations and remakes is hardly new territory for writing/directing/producing duo Joel and Ethan Coen. And, like much of their previous work, True Grit (2010) operates on a level closer to homage than pastiche. However, simultaneously darker and funnier than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 version of the 1968 Charles Portis novel, those brothers Coen have shifted their film’s focus slightly so that the story, and therefore the questionable “true grit” at stake, pertains to the young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) rather than her male role model Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

At first Mattie is introduced to us as precocious. Following her father’s murder at the hand of his employee – one Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) – Mattie intends to “settle” his affairs and “attend” to his business. Armed only with the sense of justice bestowed upon her by a now dead patriarch, Mattie tries to make sense of the order of things with its pinnacle now forcibly removed. Proving herself more than capable of bargaining with grown men (notably merciless ones at that), Mattie constantly refers back to “the force of the Law” to support her gumption. But once she earns her place on the actual physical journey that makes one a man, she begins to learn that both the Law and the Name-of-the-Father associated with it can only take her so far and that to truly attend to her father’s “business” she must prove herself worthy of true grit, instead of relying on a strong male role model to provide it for her.

To this end, Mattie is told early on that “the world is vexing enough as it is” and she is later told how to fire her own gun – the phallic weapon being almost all she has left to represent her father and something she knows about only about in theory yet has no command over until the proverbial moment of truth finally dawns. Her presence is constantly challenged and there is even a sequence where an outsider questions her directly, “I’m puzzled by this. Why is she here?”

Mattie learns ultimately that the Law does not always apply outside of the town and that in the country proper she must adhere to an altered version of it deciding what is “an act that is wrong to itself” and what is “wrong according to your laws and morals.” Bit by a snake (another phallic signifier) Mattie undergoes a type of castration and we then learn that she never marries. Unable to meet either the requirements of a lady or a man, Mattie is neither assimilated into or bound by the rules of the patriarchy. She now has something infinitely more important: the grit she so desperately searched for all along. Still presenting a formal (visual) version of her gender however, Mattie is sure to chastise a man for failing to stand when she presents herself before him. Less about her role as a woman and more in condemnation of his failing to acknowledge her well-earned grit, Mattie has more than settled her father’s business, she has reclaimed it as her own. A bold and encouraging achievement.

True Grit is released in Australian cinemas on Wednesday January 26 through Paramount Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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