The Mindful Bard: True Grit

Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World

Film: True Grit (2010)

Writers/Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, and Hailee Steinfeld

?MATTIE ROSS: I just spent last night at the undertaker?s, in the company of three corpses. I felt like Ezekiel. In the valley of the dry bones?

GRANDMA TURNER: Yes, well, God bless you.?

From True Grit

When a social upheaval reaches an unnerving crescendo, those who must endure it often long for heroes who embody iron will and superlative physical and mental skills. Some of us dream of a Captain America, but I (and judging from the box office, many others) prefer to dream of a Mattie Ross.

Mattie, not Rooster Cogburn, is really the hero in this film. It’s her determination, rigorous ethics, and faith that serve as catalysts for the remarkable deeds carried out by Rooster and the other men She’s called into her service.

Mattie Ross is a 14-year-old with a steel backbone. She’s been brought up to be religious, disciplined, and fearless, as was common among pioneer families of the era.

Tom Chaney, a hired hand, has murdered her father. As is typical of this genre, Mattie is bent on revenge. But She’s so cool, collected, and uncompromising that she seems superhuman. This is because She’s representative of an ideal for which America and much of the world pines, an ideal that becomes ever more desirable (and unattainable) within the context of the kind of violent lawlessness that we associate with the old Wild West.

The first adaptation of Charles Portis’s novel of the same name came out in 1969, with John Wayne and Kim Darby in the lead roles. At that time the older generation was in shock from news of the libertine excesses of the younger, and the younger generation was increasingly disillusioned by the hypocrisies it was discovering among its elders. America was numbed and discouraged and reeling from a series of attacks by homegrown terrorists determined to bring in diverse forms of revolutionary change.

It’s worth exploring why another adaptation of this novel might appear in 2010. To what moral crisis does True Grit speak? With what terms is it attempting to negotiate, in Francesco Casetti’s words, the future?

We have here three historical points: the setting of the story of True Grit (somewhere around the turn of the century, I’m guessing), 1969 (the year the first adaptation appeared), and 2010 (the year of this adaptation).

There are parallels among these three periods; political extremists tended to wear beards and chant mindless slogans, and leaders appeared to lack backbone and acumen. And although America’s problems are now seen to be more global?more closely linked with a history of foreign policy that has created international resentment?the reactionary sentiments that eventually emerge in an anything-goes atmosphere are remarkably similar.

Mattie Ross, for example, can’t trust the local law to bring her father’s killer to justice, so she takes justice into her own hands. It’s an unfortunate but often inevitable response to the sense of helplessness and rage generated by unbridled crime operating in an ineffective system of social controls, and a response we are now seeing being played out on the world stage on several fronts.

But Mattie is no extremist. She’s often heard threatening men with the name of her lawyer, Dagget, who is only briefly seen. In this way she appeals to an ideal of law and order that, though distant and haphazardly applied, is very real.

Mattie’s role is a tough one and the spot-on performance of Kim Darby in the first version made me assume it couldn’t be topped. However, Hailee Steinfeld does an amazing job of making this very symbolic character live, breathe, and radiate an almost divine resolve. The true test is the delivery of the line ?They tell me You’re a man with true grit,? and Hailee says it in an entirely new way?with just the right balance of admiration and ambivalence.

Mattie must earn Cogburn’s respect, which she does by upholding her own strict code and by maintaining the toughness of a boiled owl. Despite efforts to ditch her she insists on joining the posse because it is she (the embodiment of justice), and not some moneygrubber, who must commit the final act of revenge. Rooster grudgingly admires her and relents.

Even through all this, Mattie remains a child. Around the campfire she insists on telling ghost stories as she had with her dad and little brother on their last coon hunt. She is a fine example of the archetype of the wise child who due to early trauma has developed an uncanny wisdom and yet remains playful and lighthearted in the midst of chaos.

From a technical standpoint, the film is a well-integrated work of art. The sepia-toned cinematography and the mock-formal dialogue of the more proper characters is a delight, beautifully evoking the several dimensions of the mythic splendour of the Wild West. The Coen brothers? films are noted for their soundtracks and this one is no slouch either, an engaging vista of artful arrangements of traditional hymns underlining Mattie’s moral fortitude.

True Grit manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 2) it is about attainment of the true self; 3) it gives me tools which help me be a better artist; 4) it is authentic, original, and delightful; and 5) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.