Unlike you, I saw the Hathaway film relatively recently before seeing the remake, and without knowing what the Coens would do with the character, I saw Mattie in that film essentially as you describe her: single-mindedly obsessed with vengeance, driven to see her father’s killer punished, unwilling to let anyone push her aside or turn her away from her purpose. She’s not a “nagging tagalong,” she’s a girl grieving for her father but, because she is who she is, unable to express that in any way other than this thirst for justice and revenge. She certainly doesn’t have the depth that Steinfeld and the Coens bring to Mattie, but the emotions and motivations of the later film are definitely there, sometimes in skeletal form, in the original film. The Coens’ True Grit simply digs deeper into all of these characters to uncover what’s there.
A key scene for me, again, is the pivotal one after Rooster’s capitulation, when LaBoeuf is preparing to leave and Mattie tries to convince him to continue helping her. It’s one of the film’s most emotional scenes, and there’s nothing remotely like it in Hathaway’s film. Mattie begs LaBoeuf, who she’d previously dismissed as a “rodeo clown,” to replace Rooster as her agent of vengeance, and though LaBoeuf is moved by her despair, he knows that the hunt is hopeless now. In this moment, these two unlikely companions form a surprising bond of mutual respect. “I misjudged you,” Mattie says, “I picked the wrong man,” and LaBoeuf admits that he had also misjudged her. They shake hands, a sign of respect that resolves the tension of the earlier, disturbing scene where LaBoeuf spanks Mattie for trying to join him and Rooster. If he once saw her as a nagging child who needs to be punished, he comes to respect her resolve and her ability to deal with the violence she’s seen. In Hathaway’s film, LaBoeuf mostly remains a punchline until the climax, when he redeems himself by sacrificing his life; it’s only in death that he can be taken seriously. In the Coens’ film, even though LaBoeuf spends the second half of the film speaking with a ludicrous lisp due to biting his tongue during a gun battle, he has more dignity than his counterpart in the earlier film, and his handshake with Mattie is a wonderful moment for both characters.
I think that’s the main difference between these two films. The 1969 True Grit is a strange, flawed western with some very raw emotions percolating below its glossy surface. The Coens, seeing that potential in the film and its source, homed in on those emotions, fleshing out the characters and their relationships. That, and Steinfeld’s performance, is what makes this film’s Mattie so compelling, and what makes their version of this story resonate on more levels than the Hathaway film.
JB: Sure, but it’s not just a matter of resonance. Indeed, the Coens give Mattie the spotlight more than Hathaway did, but I’m not simply arguing that Steinfeld’s Mattie is deeper or more complex than Darby’s. I’m suggesting that in subtle but significant ways these Matties are quite a bit different from one another. As evidence, I’d like you to consider the following scenes: (1) the hanging in the town square; (2) Mattie’s request for a capable marshal; and (3) Mattie’s initial threat to kill Tom Chaney. Even though these scenes are largely similar in both films, even sharing dialogue in a few cases, it’s here that the Matties begin to diverge from one another. Let’s count the ways…
1) The Hanging: In the Coens’ film, Mattie happens upon the public execution and pushes her way into the crowd, wearing an expression of fascination. She’s not quite vengeful, but she’s far from squeamish. These men have committed crimes that are punishable by death, and therefore they will be hanged—to Mattie it’s as simple as that, and it’s obvious she sees the hanging as an exercise in justice. In Hathaway’s film, on the other hand, Mattie attends the public hanging not out of interest but out of a lack of anything better to do, tagging along with her servant. “I’m here,” she says, “I’ll see it.” Only she doesn’t like what she sees. When the bodies dangle, she’s shaken: “My goodness,” she says softly, nearly trembling as she turns to walk away. Whereas Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to be fantasizing about the next time she watches someone swinging in the gallows, Darby’s seems uncomfortable with the exercise.
2) The Request for a Capable Marshal: The dialogue in the scene in which Mattie inquires about the best marshal is similar from film to film, but the responses of the Matties are subtly yet significantly different. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie patiently listens to the description of all three marshals, weighs her options and makes her choice. Her selection of the “meanest” marshal, over one who is the best tracker and another who is the “straightest,” not the “best” as in the Coens’ film, doesn’t seem to be connected to vengefulness so much as youthful naïveté: if Rooster is mean, he must be good. Simple as that. In the Coens’ film, however, while Mattie again requests the “best” marshal, when given a recommendation for one she doesn’t take it. Why? Because once the word “meanest” is used in reference to Rooster, Mattie’s eyes grow wide, her face lights up and she stops listening. Steinfeld’s Mattie thinks she wants the best, until the word “meanest” triggers her taste for vengeance. And thus the latter Mattie’s bloodlust continues to reveal itself.
3) The Threat to Kill Chaney: In both films, Mattie demands to accompany Rooster, but the tone of that demand is different from movie to movie. In Hathaway’s film, when Mattie mentions that she’ll be carrying her father’s gun and that she’s “prepared to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so,” she seems most intent on goading Rooster into accepting the job—the old “if you can’t do it, I will” reverse-psychology trick. But in the Coens’ film, Mattie’s desire to take arms against Chaney seems to come from a darker place, as if she’s miffed that she might not get the chance to slay Chaney. While Darby’s Mattie inspires the sense that she would indeed pull the trigger if she had to, Steinfeld’s Mattie seems to want to pull the trigger, because she doesn’t just want Chaney dead, she wants to watch him die. When Bridges’s Rooster suggests that Chaney might already be dead somewhere in the wilderness, Mattie takes offense. “That would be a bitter disappointment,” she says.
So, in summation, do both Matties want Tom Chaney to hang for the murder of their father? Absolutely. But only one of them is desperate to watch Chaney bleed.
EH: That’s a great breakdown of the differences in this character between the two films, although to quibble I’d say that your second example plays out pretty much the same in both films. What the other two examples come down to, I think, is the different attitudes about death evinced by these two films. In both films, death is central to the underlying themes. This is a revenge story, about a girl seeking the life of the man who killed her father, but both films go beyond that to examine attitudes about death, and especially Mattie’s attitude about death. Both films are about a girl who believes she’s strong and mature. She goes off with Rooster and LaBoeuf believing she’s fully prepared to kill her father’s murderer, but actually facing death, first at the hanging and then at the cabin where they meet Quincy and Moon (Domhnall Gleeson), puts her “grit” to the test. You’ve already described how the hanging plays out differently. In Hathaway’s film, Mattie watches the hanging not just because she happens to be there, but because, as someone who’s seeking a death sentence against Chaney, she feels she should be able to face this. But she finds that she’s not quite as steeled against death as she’d thought. In the Coens’ film, Mattie already has grit enough not to blink at this spectacle. The aftermath of the Quincy and Moon showdown is perhaps even more revealing in its differences.
In the original film, after Quincy and Moon die, Mattie forces Rooster to follow through on the promises he’d made to the dying Moon: to make sure that his body is buried, and to get word (and some possessions) to the dead criminal’s brother. Mattie doesn’t allow the bodies to be simply forgotten—by Rooster, or by the film. Rooster, Mattie and LaBoeuf bring the corpses of Quincy, Moon and some other outlaws to a nearby waystation, where the local lawman lifts the heads of the dead men one by one to identify them, looking each of them in the face. Many other films would have just moved on once the bad guys were dead, but death lingers in this film, it’s tangible and painful. It’s as though Hathaway is respecting the perspective of Mattie, who’s wise beyond her years but still manages to learn a great deal about death and dying over the course of this journey. She reacts to death, not with the casual shrug of Rooster—or indeed of her character in the Coens’ film—but with a real feeling for each life lost. Mattie is not sentimental. When she’s asked by the coroner if she wants to kiss her dead father, she says no, that his soul is already gone; she doesn’t believe that his cold body contains anything of his essence. But she still has respect for death, and for the body left behind when the spirit departs.
In the Coens’ film, Quincy and Moon die in pretty much the same way as they do in Hathaway’s version, but what happens afterward is very different. As in the earlier film, Mattie is upset that Rooster doesn’t plan to honor his promise and bury the dead men, but in this case she can’t convince Rooster to do it, and indeed she doesn’t really try very hard. Instead, the corpses are lined up as though sitting against the wall of the cabin, and as Rooster and Mattie ride away from the scene, the bodies are carefully positioned in the lower corner of the frame, subtly nagging at our vision and at Mattie.
This is a much more cynical vision of death, one that’s carried over into the scene where Mattie and Rooster come across the hanged man in the forest. This dead man is only important to them to the extent that he could be useful: Mattie wonders if it’s Tom Chaney, and Rooster just wants to know if it’s a friend or an enemy, someone he knows. Once they both realize it’s a stranger, the body becomes unimportant to them, and Rooster allows a passing Native American to take the body as a bargaining chip. Later we learn that the Native American’s trading was successful: he gave the body to an eccentric wandering doctor who wears a bear fur with the bear’s grinning head nearly covering his own face. When Mattie and Rooster encounter the doctor, he’s already pulled the dead man’s teeth, which is all he wants out of the corpse, so he offers to trade with them for the now-toothless body. One can see how the corpse will be passed around, gradually stripped of what’s valuable to various people who get a hold of it, the life that once inhabited that body meaning nothing to any of them. Where Hathaway’s film takes pains to emphasize a dignified, respectful approach to death, the Coens, perhaps unsurprisingly given their bleak worldview, treat death as a dark joke, the punchline of which is commodification and dismemberment.
JB: I think you’re right. But while the Coens aren’t reverent about death and disfigurement, we should be careful not to imply that they’re entirely flippant about it. Because while the Coens have a reputation for dark humor, their true gift is their ability to let dark humor and genuine ghastliness (be it physical or emotional) coexist in the same frame. The best example of this, I’ve always thought, is the scene in Fargo when the two hired hoods show up at the Lundegaard residence to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean. We know that the men have no intention of hurting Jean, and further that they have nothing against her; it’s Jerry’s plan, and they’re just the muscle. But Jean has no clue that these masked men aren’t as cold-blooded as they appear, or that one of them (Steve Buscemi’s Carl) is, in the parlance of True Grit, a nincompoop. So Jean runs around her house screaming hysterically. And while the Coens create humor out of that scene, they don’t, in my opinion, overlook Jean’s fear. Her histrionics are amusing, but they’re also totally justified. The Coens urge us to laugh at the spectacle while also feeling sympathetic for the victim. And in True Grit we get something of the same: the guy in the bear outfit is quintessentially Coensian—dark and peculiar—but even amidst all that oddity it’s hard not to feel for the dead guy on the back of the horse, who went from being hanged in a tree, to being ungracefully cut down, to being sold for parts. Perhaps he had a daughter, too. Perhaps he had grit.
Having said that, it’s probably time we trade thoughts about what these films have to say about violence and revenge, given the films’ focus on that subject. In a series of thought-provoking posts at Icebox Movies, Adam Zanzie expressed a moral objection to both True Grit films (while also finding much to compliment), calling Hathaway’s film “a pro-capital punishment diatribe, a celebration of vigilante authoritarian tactics and a glorification of the ’shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” and saying that the Coens’ film “is a complete rejection of the lessons of [Clint] Eastwood’s [Unforgiven],” which he argues had “so profoundly closed the door on ’frontier justice’ by telling the sad truths about it.” Elaborating further, Zanzie argues that True Grit “crassly reverses everything that the Coens have ever said to us in their films about crime, violence and religion,” suggesting that the Coens have “taken a step backward and made a film stressing another one of those banal insights about how crime doesn’t pay, coupled with a divine message (strictly Judeo-Christian) about how God will hold us all accountable for our actions.” I have my own thoughts on these issues, but let me start us off by asking this question: Do you think Hathaway’s film and the Coens’ film have similar attitudes about violence and revenge, and if not, or if so, what are those attitudes?
EH: I think the Coens’ film is more conflicted in its attitudes than the earlier film. Adam is right, I believe, that Hathaway’s film is largely uncritical of the death penalty. Hathaway never questions Mattie’s desire for revenge, and, as Adam points out, her adversary Chaney is such an underdeveloped caricature of pathetic evil that it’s hard to feel even a twinge of sympathy for his death. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a major problem—as you point out in that comment thread, it is after all a fair portrayal of the actual system of vigilante justice and eye-for-an-eye morality that ruled the Old West—but I agree that that’s the political/moral subtext of the film. The Coens don’t entirely repudiate that perspective, but they do critique and complicate it in some subtle ways. We’ve already discussed some of the scenes that complicate the film’s attitude about capital punishment: notably the hanged man who becomes an object in the barter system, and Rooster’s testimony about the men he’s killed, with the implication that he’s lying about the circumstances of the killings. Another important scene is the dark joke involving the last words of the three prisoners who Mattie sees hanged: the two white men get to speak at length before they’re killed, but the Native American is abruptly cut off before he’s able to say more than a couple of words. That’s a pretty pointed comment directed at the racial inequities of the justice system, particularly surrounding the death penalty, which in modern America has always been disproportionately applied to racial minorities.
Perhaps nowhere are these two films’ respective attitudes about revenge and justice more apparent than in the much-remarked-upon differences between their endings. Hathaway’s film ends with Rooster and Mattie by her father’s grave, talking about their own plans for where they’ll be laid to rest. There’s more than a note of sadness in this coda—Mattie, already precocious in so many ways, has now matured before her time into an acute awareness of mortality—but the film’s final moment is a triumphant gag by Rooster that seems, more than anything, like Wayne’s self-conscious assertion of his continued masculinity and vigor even in spite of his status as a “fat old man.” The Coens end their film on a very different note. There’s no hint of triumphalism in their glimpse into the future, revealing Mattie as an old spinster who’s still much like her young self, although her age puts her personality into a very different perspective; it’s harder to take her combative attitude and stubbornness from a grown woman than from a precocious kid. To me, this anticlimactic epilogue, in which Mattie seeks out Rooster only to find that he’s dead, suggests a very Coensian moral takeaway: that in the long run all actions are pointless, that all that death and suffering and loss ultimately meant very little, and changed nothing.
Now, the film isn’t entirely down on revenge: when I saw it, people were cheering and clapping enthusiastically in the theater when Chaney gets shot, and I don’t think they were missing the point. The film’s climax is undeniably exciting, but what does Mattie get for her revenge? As Rooster rides her away from the scene of the shootouts and killings, her gaze woozily drifts over each of the dead bodies lying in the field; so much death has resulted from her stubborn drive for revenge. Then she loses her beloved horse, and her arm, and when we see her as an adult she hardly seems at peace or contented. I never got the sense that the film was suggesting, as Adam says, that “God will hold us all accountable for our actions,” even though Mattie clearly does believe that. The moral universe of the film is more ambiguous. It suggests that death is universal, that some people deserve what they get and some don’t, that cruelty is everywhere and sometimes it’s answered with more cruelty. Probably the best example is the weird little scene where Rooster encounters a pair of kids tormenting a donkey, and he frees the animal, knocking the kids away from it with offhanded disdain. It’s maybe the “nicest” thing he does until the climax, but his good deed consists of kicking a couple of kids—and then, when he passes by them again, he kicks one of them a second time, not to save a defenseless animal but, seemingly, just for fun. That doesn’t seem to me like the kind of scene that would be included in a film that’s trying to praise a black-and-white view of “frontier justice.” In most of the Coens’ films, “crime doesn’t pay,” and that’s true here as well—but as in their other work, being on the side of good doesn’t pay especially well either, and neither does revenge or justice. As the opening voiceover of the brothers’ first feature Blood Simple says, as a prelude to a bloody string of murders and vendettas, “nothin’ comes with a guarantee.”
JB: On a similar note, as we learn in the Coens’ True Grit, “There is nothing free but the grace of God.” That’s what Mattie says near the start of the film after observing, “You have to pay for everything, one way or another.” Those two lines, along with the scenes you cite above, go far to suggest that this latest film actually fits rather nicely within the Coens’ body of work. That we pay for things “one way or another” is a nearly perfect way to sum up what we’ve seen over the years from the Coens, in whose films some folks are shot down by gunmen, and others are done in by natural disasters, and still others are doomed by landscaping appliances. The Coens’ world is one in which things rarely come easily, and in which even the good guys rarely come away unscathed. (Even Fargo’s saintly Marge Gunderson has to pay a price—having her faith in mankind shattered, tainting her opinion about the world into which she’s about to bring a child.)