23 December 2010

True Grit

The Coen Brothers version of True Grit seems to me finally a story of courage and virtue in a world overrun with criminality, greed and lawless mayhem. Not unlike our own time, I think. Of course, there is nothing terribly honorable about Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), who we meet at first on trial for callously killing some outlaws (maybe) whom he had been chasing (we think). Whether he shot the men in self-defense or just shot them where they stood to ensure his reward is left unresolved, but clearly there is nothing honorable about his actions on this (and other) occasions. Rooster Cogburn is no model of virtue. Indeed, his drunkenness does not endear his character to the viewer, nor does his seemingly amoral stance in the world. He stands for nothing but his own limited self-interest and his alcoholism. He may be competent, but he exudes no inspires no confidence in Mattie, and the scene where he shoots at an empty bottle and some corn bread is not only funny but revelatory: he might not even be adequate to any task. Cogburn’s marital narrative does not portray him favorably, the second wife long ago having left Rooster and taken their son. He does exhibit any remorse or confusion. As I watched the film I was constantly aware how for Cogburn there was absent any sense of normal hygiene and cleanliness: except for Mattie, everyone in the film (almost completely male) were disgustingly dirty. No one bathes, washes or cleans their teeth throughout the film. Even Mattie never changes her clothes, but somehow she remains comparatively dirtless. And no male in the film has any real redeeming characteristic, nor is there a hint in the film of any sexuality whatsoever. Of course, Mattie is supposed to be fourteen years old, but I would suspect that in this Wild West, a women’s age doesn’t matter when male desire is aroused.

The journey—for finally that is the structure of the film—concerns the search for Tom Chaney who had murdered Mattie’s father and then escaped with impunity. Mattie hires Rooster, a Marshal, to track down Chaney, and she insists on accompanying Rooster in the search. She intends to bring Chaney back to trial and hanging. Mattie is a strong female, and she drives a hard bargain—whether it is to get back the monies her father paid for goods he could not now use, or whether it is to coerce Cogburn to take her charge and payment. She knows her law—or at least appears to have this knowledge when talking with business men who would cheat her because they assume she is a young, innocent girl , or because they would cheat anyone as an automatic first response to any situation. Mattie may be innocent but she is not unlearned. She consistently gets her way.

Finally Mattie will have to shoot Cheney herself, and then be saved by Rooster in the one truly heroic act of the film: the recoil from the rifle drives her back into an abandoned mine and a nest of snakes. There, she is bitten by a rattlesnake, and Rooster pulls her out of the mine (with the assistance of Mr. LeBoeuf—pronounced LeBeef) and then runs for miles to a doctor carrying her in his arms. Maddie survives, but she will lose her left arm as a result of the snakebite. Mattie will never seem Rooster again, though finally, having learned of his death, she exhumes his body and brings it back to her land for burial. She will remain for her life unmarried, but it is unclear whether it is out of loyalty to Rooster or abhorrence for the male.

The journey takes Mattie into the wild of the West where she regularly confronts cruelty, dishonesty and violence. She and Rooster are joined in their quest by Mr. LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who also is out searching for Tom Chaney, and who would prefer to travel alone but ends up joining forces for awhile with the two, and who at the end prevents the murder of Mattie and Rooster in Rooster’s bungled attempt to kill all of the outlaws. There is nothing about him to be admired; at best he is a pompous ass.
Finally, Mattie’s desire for justice in the wild, lawless and wholly male West—which she must finally execute herself and in the process of which loses both her innocence and her arm—and Rooster’s race to save Mattie’s life, are the ethical basis of the film. The film seems to suggest that even a lowlife like Rooster Cogburn about which nothing favorable might be said, can acts ethically, and that even in an environment thoroughly lawless and immoral, justice can be attained, though it might not look just. Here Rooster Cogburn surprises even himself in his effort to save Mattie.

Perhaps it is the vision of this film that ethics and virtue and courage have dubious presence in the world and are never evident in pure and plain form. These qualities are not integral to character, but rather a potential within each person that arises maybe in particular and specific occasions without premeditation or even conscious intent.

Though the final scene of the film is elegiac, the characters—all but Mattie—remain contemptible. They may have washed but their hands are not clean.


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