Sunday, January 2, 2011

True Grit

During the holidays, Roger and I went to see the Coen brothers' version of True Grit, starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. Having read the novel (1968) by Charles Portis some years ago, I am reading it again.

We were glued to the screen throughout the entire movie.

I was impressed by Portis's evocation of a bygone time by means of language use, allusions and presentation of social customs. Like Portis, the Coen brothers are grittily realistic in showing a violent culture in which life is cheap. Presenting the story through fourteen year old Mattie Ross allows irony. Mattie takes for granted such facts of life as public hangings and dead bodies. At the same time, she is a typical fourteen year old, a mixture of childish notions (comparing the hunt for an outlaw to a raccoon hunt) and adult behaviour, as when she bargains with a horse trader.

Some reviewers, admiring this extraordinary character played to perfection by Hailee Steinfeld, have compared Mattie to that other famous child-protagonist in American fiction, Huck Finn. But Mattie is not a social rebel. She doesn't aspire to "light out for the territory" in search of freedom; instead, she wants someone to go with her there to pursue her father's murderer and bring him to justice. Mattie's ideal is a peaceful, orderly, well-governed society.

Watching the fourteen year old protagonist portrayed on the screen, I tried to remember myself at that age. I was as bossy and sharp-tongued as Mattie, but not as persistent. Also, I was timid, and a bundle of emotions. Mattie is very self-controlled. She sheds no tears on viewing her father's body; the only time she cries is when her horse, Little Blackie, has to be shot. Her lack of emotional display may be explained by her religion or the stoicism of the era (compared to ours).

Some commentators say that the character of Mattie is unrealistically drawn; that no young person could bargain so tenaciously, be so frugal and so determined to get value for money. One must put her behaviour in context. The novel is set during the administration of U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, first elected in 1877, a period of rapid industrial expansion and a big gap between rich and poor. Mattie would have been born during the Civil War (1861-5) and would have grown up in the defeated South. Although her father owned a lot of acreage, his fortunes would have declined dramatically with the defeat of the Confederacy. This was a pre-"social-safety-net" society. Money was important.

Mattie's family configuration suggests reasons for her extraordinary toughness and high self-esteem. Her brother and sister are much younger than she is. In an era where women often had a new baby every eighteen months, a family of only three children, with wide age gaps, suggests ill-health, malnutrition and infant mortality. Mattie was probably the apple of her father's eye because for a while she would have been the only child. Her mother, Mattie says, could hardly spell "cat", and had no skill with figures, so it must have been her father who educated her and made her his "little book-keeper". Her resolve in pursuing justice on her father's behalf (or seeking revenge for his murder) must have come from having been treated with kindness and respect.

In this movie, Mattie is the character with true grit. The two principal male characters are eccentric and funny, but look like risky companions for her quest. Marshall Cogburn is out of shape and drinks. On the trail, he tells Mattie that he had a wife once but that she went back to her first husband, taking his boy with her. "He didn't like me anyhow," he says - and we realize he means his son! "I guess I did speak awful rough to him but I didn't mean anything by it." The Texas ranger, LaBoeuf, initially comes across as a dandy, a braggart and a bully. He has been on Chaney's trail to catch him for crimes in Texas, but has missed two opportunities to apprehend him.

We readers/viewers are familiar with the "hero's journey" plot in which the protagonists are changed for the better by the challenges they encounter on their quest. In this story, both men redeem themselves. At first there seems a big discepancy between LaBoeuf's claims and his actual achievements, but the Ranger subsequently proves himself in crises. Cogburn behaved heroically.

Usually in "hero's journey" scripts, the change is positive; the main characters blossom into their best selves. Accordingly, we readers/viewers find the change in Mattie a surprise, to say the least. Several commentators have criticized the Coens for giving the movie a "sad ending". In fact, the movie ends more or less the way the novel does. In gaining her objective, Mattie pays a serious price. When the older Mattie (the narrator of the novel) appears at the end of the film, she is not quite how we would have expected her to turn out.

To me, the ending is realistic and even positive. So as not to spoil the plot, I'll tell you what DOESN'T happen to Mattie.

1) She doesn't die in childbirth like so many women in the 19th century.
2) She doesn't live in poverty in her old age.
3) She doesn't end up dependent on one of the wild, self-destructive men in the film.
4) She doesn't forget those who helped her.

As the movie faded out and the credits came on, I was transfixed by the voice of country singer Iris Dement singing a hymn written in the 19th century: "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." My mother used to sing it. Its lyrics are hopeful and confident.

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