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At the Movies: True Grit

2011 March 23

Internet, I’m sorry. I’m not a Coen Brothers fan. The last film I saw by them was O Brother, Where Art Thou? which I primarily watched because it’s based loosely on the Odyssey, and I’m nothing if not an epic poetry nerd. People told me to hold my trousers and undergarments close about me lest I laughed them off. All leg-coverings, I’m afraid to say, remained steadfastly, unamusedly attached. I didn’t like it. I was ostracised from the film-loving community for six months. It was a sad time.

So when people were piping delirious at me that there was oh my god, a new Coen Brothers film out! – I wasn’t massively over-excited. I also heard it was a remake, and I’m not vastly excited about those, either. And then I heard it was a Western; the film genre I’m least excited about. So please understand, then, the genial ambivalence that coursed, skin-tone-knuckled, through my laid-back veins as I sauntered casually to see True Grit last Thursday.

*** For those who’ve not seen it, the SPOILER WARNING goes here.***

I went to see it at my local Picturehouse cinema, which is my favourite cinema in the world (except for the old Odeon in Pwllheli, Wales, which has honest-to-god curtains and an usherette – or at least it did last time I went, which was in the 90s!) because of its serene, sociable atmosphere and gorgeous staff. It’s nothing like Vue, which – despite having equally beautiful staff – stresses me out with its up-selling and chemical-weapon nachos. By the time I’d got to my seat, I was practically horizontal with how much chillaxing was going down Chez Moi, and even the beautiful car advert with the people tangoing barely got my blood pressure above a whisper.

Poster for the film: white background with black text stating the (male) stars and title.The film began. A young girl’s voice proclaiming her story and the death of her father. Something flickered deep in the back of my mellow mind as my feminism gland quivered, detecting an atypical female lead character. Sure enough, hypnotically well-written sentence followed well-spoken phrase, and there she was: 14-year-old Mattie Ross (the hilariously under-championed-on-the-poster-credits Hailee Steinfeld), out to avenge her father’s death in a backbiting, injust world dominated by grizzled old men whose extensive facial hair is only out-done by their bastardliness.

She is sharp, intelligent and scheming – easily either the equal or superior of the men she takes on – with an unshakeable sense of duty and justice which tides her actions along throughout the film. She will see the man who killed her father hanged, damnit, and he will be hanged in her state, in full knowledge of the reason for his hanging. She takes on scurrilous scoundrels at their own game and betters them, taking advantage of their constant underestimating her powers of perception and reason, and her stalwart determination.

But this is a man’s world – specifically, an old man’s world. Every character other than Mattie is weather-beaten and dog-eared regardless of how long they’ve been on the earth. They’re as ancient and savage as the wilderness around them and they’re a lot more worldly-wise. Mattie isn’t naive, and has a strong sense of the way things should work, but she isn’t as jaded as the men whose company she keeps, and this throws up great, gaping chasms of inexperienced vulnerability for her to bridge every once in a while. She is genuinely shocked and outraged when, for example, Matt Damon‘s (surprisingly well-acted – it is Matt “Puzzled Indifference” Damon we’ve got here, after all…) Texan ranger, LaBoeuf, expresses a desire to capture the same man that she pursues, and have him hanged in his own state for his own reasons.

Poster for the film showing Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin staring out at the viewer The society Mattie finds herself having to navigate for the honour of her father cannot even countenance her being their equal. She is constantly belittled and spoken down to, even though she proves herself a formidable adversary. The men she encounters infantilise her, call her “baby sister” and regularly denounce her as “ugly”, as though the only expected worth she is meant to have in the world is her beauty. She easily proves that she has more than looks to offer – but that’s not what she’s meant to offer.

I am thoroughly depressed to admit that I was expecting a rape, having not read the book and given the common trope of “Strong Female Character Ends Up Raped” in films. Now, I don’t know how this pans out, therefore, in the book the film is based on, but Mattie is grossly manhandled and spanked in the film by LaBoeuf after she follows he and his rival Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) out into the wilderness. He trivially overpowers her – as a barely pubescent 14-year-old – and the whole scene feels like a total violation, despite such abuse being common in the historical context of the setting. It’s awful, and culminates in one of the times that Cogburn steps in to save her.

That’s the other thing – Mattie does end up getting rescued quite a bit. All things considered, I can actually get behind this. All the situations in which she finds herself in need of rescue are situations that either come about as a direct result of, or are exacerbated by, her stature. She’s bloody tiny! Comments on her size are manifold – she’s a “fleabite”, “skin and bone”, and a “horsefly”. She’s more determined and courageous than either of the great big chaps she takes with her on her quest, but she’s knocked off her feet by the recoil of a rifle, and is thrown about like a doll when LaBoeuf spanks her. She isn’t powerless, but she is young – and female – and with that comes an inescapable physical vulnerability which comes up time and time again in the film.

But she wins. Oh yes. She completes her revenge cycle, and she wins. The film closes on her several years later, describing herself as “never having time enough for family” of her own. She out-survives all the members of her family – and, tragically, Cogburn, who saved her life – and is unassailably strong for it. You get the strong impression that the story the film tells is only one of her many stories, and it was certainly not the last time she went off adventuring. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I loved her.

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES. Coming to a cinema near you! IN MY MIND.

Oh, did I mention how fucking hilarious the whole thing is? It’s weird, dry, creaky, strange humour and I love it. The dialogue is solid and glittering as polished brass, and the characters are all highly engaging, and it’s a pleasure to hear them speak. The film’s also a joy to look at – it’s all in Gritty Realistic Brown, but in a golden, glowing way, rather than a used-coffee-filter way. Machinery, horses and scenery are fetished to roughly the same amount, and I derived a great deal of pleasure comparing Mattie’s smooth, young face to the craggy old men, rocks and steam trains that surround her, because I’m a freak with no life and a grand love of textures.

ONE MORE THING. There is, as is only correct and proper for the time, racism in this film that’s just casually there and not even questioned and it’s horrific. There’s a pretty brutal hanging scene, and the Native American fellow isn’t even allowed to say his final words before the sack is tugged over his head, cutting him off mid-flow. I am disappointed to say that the audience I found myself with laughed at that, though I’d like to believe that it was a nervous laugh out of shock and disgust, rather than amusement. Black humour is one thing, and it’s clearly quite an extreme situation, but it’s deeply uncomfortable nevertheless, because horrendous attitudes towards indigenous American people still exist.


  • Mattie is one of the finest and most likeable lead characters I have ever seen
  • It’s well-written and genuinely hilarious (like, shout-with-laughter-disturbing-the-other-cinema-goers-hilarious)
  • The characters are engaging, really well-scripted, and engrossing to watch
  • It is exceedingly good to look at in a visual sense


  • You know, I have absolutely no idea what would unrecommend this film to you. Perhaps if you’re really, really allergic to Westerns? And hate panoramic shots of mountains with a passion rivalled only by that of my hatred for toesocks?
6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenni permalink
    March 23, 2011

    Hailee Steinfeld will get to be Katniss in the movie of The Hunger Games! It’s confirmed.

    She will continue her illustrious career of being tiny and shooting the shit out of things, except this time with a bow and arrow.

  2. March 24, 2011

    I would say don’t watch the movie if you’re distracted and annoyed by the trope that strong, intelligent, brave, independent and determined women can have either their courage and independence *or* love, affection and family in their lives.

    I admit that the movie is so masterfully written and acted that it took a while for the glow to fade and for me to think “hang on a minute!”, but in retrospect I’m disappointed by the implication that after this episode Mattie’s life was lonely and emotionally barren, to the point where the grizzled old Cogburn is the only person she feels strong attachment to and nostalgia for when she grows up.

    • Miranda permalink*
      March 26, 2011

      I think this is a really interesting point, and others have raised it too (I read a great post on the F Word with some good links the other day).

      I feel a bit like a lot of compelling women characters in cinema are kinda “lone ranger” types – Lisbeth Salander, for example, in the Stieg Larsson adaptations. Cinema seems to prefer to place its centre-stage women, when they appear, into lone situations. Which makes for a great “one woman vs SOCIETYYYY” thing… but it’d be great to see some women interact together more, in positive ways, to balance that out. Where are the buddy movies about women (the ones that are written to the level of True Grit, anyway)?

      I feel like True Grit is written in a tradition, but at the same time, I think “but it’s the conventions of the genre” is a big old defensive screen the movie industry (and other pop culture industries!) loves to hide behind when erasing the potential of varied women’s narratives from the frame. I absolutely take the point that there are plenty other traditions that get ignored, and plenty other kinds of stories that don’t get optioned. Me, I’d like some duos, some teams, some lone-women-who-interact-with-a-less-entirely-male-dominated-landscape in my Cineworld movie rosters – but I’d like them as well as, rather than instead of, movies like True Grit. Because I do like True Grit a lot.

    • wererogue permalink
      March 30, 2011

      I don’t have any numbers on this one, and I’ll agree it’s a trope, but I think it’s a pretty gender-neutral trope. That describes a billion and one male superheroes, cowboys, soldiers and more.

      I agree that brand new characters are the most exciting of all, and there is assuredly a massive pool of interesting male character archetypes to be plumbed for well-written female counterparts, but the badass loner is an attractive character for any writer, and I’m happy to see it used well to portray jaded well-meaning, moral ladies as well as men.

  3. wererogue permalink
    March 30, 2011

    I’ve been looking forward to the BR post on this movie – I am behind you pretty much all the way.

    A part of me feels the need to point out that the “weird, dry, creaky, strange humour”, solid, gilttering dialogue and highly engaging characters whom it is a pleasure to hear speak are the features of all those other Coen brothers films that everyone loves. O Brother even has that golden-brown colouring, although it’s taken even further in that movie.

    I think that if I’d gone into O Brother expecting the Iliad I’d have been pretty disappointed, but it was very enjoyable to discover while watching.

    However, like most of their movies, True Grit has something different to offer as well, and it may be those unique parts that bring it all together for you. If you wanted to give another of their films a try, I’d recommend the less-popular Fargo, which is more character and less story driven, and generally more challenging, but a good film nonetheless.

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