And so it is in True Grit. In the film’s opening act, Mattie notes that she is confident that she is “firm in the right,” and that “the author of all things watches over me,” and we have little reason to doubt her. The bartering scenes with Col. Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) are chiefly designed to show Mattie’s smarts and grit, but they also underline her rightness in that whenever Mattie threatens to get her lawyer involved, Stonehill acquiesces to her demands. Meanwhile, Tom Chaney’s guilt is reinforced both by LaBoeuf’s determined pursuit of him across several states and by the fact that, after shooting Mattie’s father, Chaney fell in with an even more notorious criminal, Ned Pepper. On top of all that, the hanging scene at the start of the film demonstrates that capital punishment is an unexceptional reality of life in the Old West—spectacle enough to draw a crowd but routine enough that the judge watches comfortably from his rocking chair. Put all this together and there’s no doubting that Chaney is guilty and that Mattie is justified in wanting him to pay the price, which in that time and place happens to be death. But that doesn’t mean that Mattie won’t have her own price to pay for her revenge.
That’s why I think the Coens’ film reinforces the lessons of Unforgiven, rather than defies them. Let’s not forget that Unforgiven, too, ends with a rousing, cathartic massacre in which all the bad guys get what they deserve. Alas, in becoming the taker of lives, justified though his actions are, Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny loses his soul, and to a lesser extent that’s what happens to Mattie. She has her vengeance, but she gets bit by a snake, she loses her horse, she loses her arm and, twice in a sense, she loses Rooster, who might have otherwise filled the void left by her father (as happens in Hathaway’s optimistic conclusion). “Nothing is free” for Mattie, not even serving as executioner for a man who committed a crime that was, to recall LaBoeuf’s use of Latin, malum in se (wrong by nature), not just malum prohibitum (wrong only because society or law prohibits it). If even Mattie must pay a toll for vengeance, then certainly the Coens are reminding us yet again that no one is allowed to tiptoe through the raindrops without getting wet. Or perhaps the Coens could be suggesting that Mattie’s self-defense and otherwise justified killing of Chaney was malum in se, if not malum prohibitum.
On that note, the Coens’ film gives us room to debate exactly how much Mattie is punished and exactly what for. Just before the film ends we learn that Mattie never went on to marry, and depending on your perspective that nugget of information could be viewed as a testament to Mattie’s fierce independence or as another bit of comeuppance for her acts of vengeance. In the first of a few posts on the subject at Unmuzzled Thoughts, Kelli Marshall argued the latter, noting that Mattie, like so many female characters before her, is punished not just for killing Chaney but, according to a long, sad tradition, for “her independent and strong-willed ways.” That post led to a debate on Twitter with Craig Simpson and Matt Zoller Seitz, who argued that Mattie’s post-amputation fate is neither Hollywood-conventional (Mattie doesn’t run off and marry LaBoeuf) nor is it a form of reparation (Mattie remains single by choice, she says). But while Kelli conceded specific arguments, she wasn’t wholly convinced. In a second post, she noted that while “Mattie’s final voiceover tells the viewer that she never found love or married because she ’[never had time to fool with it],’ … what does the frame show us? Steeliness, resoluteness, unhappiness, disfigurement, the semblance of spinsterhood.” I think Kelli has a point. There’s no debating that the Coens’ film has a great fondness for Mattie, even in the end, as evidenced by the way she mouths off to the man who she deems disrespectful, but her countenance is one of someone who has spent her entire life in mourning. It’s as if in taking away Chaney’s life, she lost her soul. To quote Mattie regarding her father’s corpse, her spirit has long since flown.
EH: That’s a good point, and it all comes down to the tone of the ending. As Kelli says, Mattie’s adult voiceover maintains its flinty resolve, but the final shot of the film, of Mattie walking off into the distance, twists the typical “ride into the sunset” ending by making it a lonely, desolate image. The coda is really interesting in general. It’s a reminder of the artificiality of endings in storytelling, and of the old cliché that a happy ending is often a premature ending. By leaping forward so many years into the future, this film undoes the “happy ending” of Mattie getting her revenge and Rooster rescuing her from the snake bite. It also underscores that Mattie’s quest for vengeance has been the defining event of her life: even decades later, she still seems haunted by what she’d seen and done, marked by it not only in her phantom limb, but in her whole manner.
I don’t think Mattie is being punished—by God? by the filmmakers?—for her independence or her refusal to be confined by expected gender roles. She’s simply been deeply affected by the events of her childhood. “Nothing is free” indeed, and one senses in this coda that Mattie has paid a very high price for her revenge, not because she’s a woman, but because such bloodshed and ugliness weigh heavily on a person, and especially on a child. It’s easy to forget, because of her composure and her strong will, that Mattie is only fourteen when she sets off to find Chaney, but every so often she reminds us, as when she tells Ned Pepper, with deceptive calm, how terrible it was to see Quincy and Moon die in front of her. She’s matter-of-fact about it, as she is about everything, but she’s also honest in admitting that she was affected, that beneath her assured exterior she’s being shaken and changed by the things she’s seen. Some critics have asserted that the adult Mattie of the epilogue seems very different from the girl who appears throughout the rest of the film, but I don’t think there’s such a profound disconnect between them. She has the same fiery demeanor, the same impatience with the disrespect or foolishness of others, the same determination. The main difference seems to be a subtle air of sadness lingering around her, an extra edge of bitterness in her voice when she tells off the man who doesn’t stand for her, a hint of regret that her life hasn’t added up to more. That’s understandable, though: the defining event of her life happened when she was fourteen, and in a sense it’s all downhill after that.
JB: Absolutely. Frankly, I find it refreshing that the Coens are thoughtful enough about Mattie to show the toll of those years, rather than pretending foolishly that who we are at fourteen is who we are at forty. I think you’re right that the film suggests that Mattie’s experience with Rooster was the most significant time of her life—and how couldn’t it be? She lost her father, killed a man and then lost her arm. That’s quite a week. Still, the elder Mattie reminds us that there have been a lot of years in between. As you said, it’s easy to trace this Mattie back to her youth, but she’s not the same. How could she be?
While we’re on the subject of tone and endings, it’s time to discuss not just Mattie but the series of events that happen after Mattie gets fanged by a rattlesnake. In both the Coens’ film and Hathaway’s, we feel the urgency of Rooster’s rescue attempt, riding hard back toward civilization in a desperate attempt to save the older girl/young woman for whom he has developed a somewhat paternal fondness. But I assume you’ll agree with me that the tones of these sequences are quite different from film to film. In Hathaway’s version, it’s a heroic and touching race against time, with Rooster eventually commandeering a horse and buggy and speeding back toward civilization like a stockcar driver heading for the finish line. It’s a rousing sequence, an uplifting sequence, a triumphant sequence. In the Coens’ version, the urgency is still felt but the tone is bleaker. The sequence ends with Rooster carrying Mattie in his arms and shuffling over the rugged terrain, huffing and wheezing like Little Blackie before him. He saves Mattie, but he never quite crosses the finish line, instead dropping to his knees within 100 yards of Bagby’s store and firing a pistol into the air. “I’ve grown old,” he says, announcing the obvious. Whereas Wayne’s Rooster confirms his validity, Bridges’s Rooster seems to be awakening to the reality that it’s time for him to be put out to pasture. He isn’t the man he used to be, whatever that was. Time has gotten away from him.
EH: I think that’s right. The final ride in the Coens’ True Grit is a bleak, stylized nightmare, as Rooster mercilessly drives Mattie’s horse Little Blackie through an eerie, blue-black night that feels like the landscape as seen through Mattie’s fevered, hazy perspective. The sequence recalls the Grimm fairy tale aesthetic of Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, and the end of this ride, when Rooster staggers towards the cabin with Mattie in his arms, recalls an earlier John Wayne picture, the John Ford-directed 3 Godfathers. In that film, an outlaw finds redemption through rescuing a child, and he similarly staggers towards civilization on his last legs. As you say, the Coens make this scene about Rooster coming to terms with his age, but it is also—and this applies to Hathaway’s version as well—about his redemption. Rooster had already proved that he was still capable of grit on the battlefield, when he rides into the final showdown with a gun in each hand and his horse’s reins clamped between his teeth. The ride to rescue Mattie is about a different kind of redemption: after proving that he can still kill people, he proves that he can save as well as destroy, that he can do good, that he’s more than just the “meanest,” most ornery and relentless of man-hunters.
The comparison to 3 Godfathers also reminds me of one of my favorite metafictional moments in the Coens’ True Grit: their subtle homage to Ford’s most famous film, The Searchers. The final shot of that film is probably one of the most frequently quoted and referenced images in cinema, probably because it’s such a simple, iconic shot that is nevertheless freighted with meaning: the door, framed by black, looking out at Wayne’s Ethan Edwards as he walks away into the barren landscape. So many directors have paid homage to that shot, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quoted with the irreverence of the Coens, who ironically tweak it by having Rooster loutishly interrupt the stately composition (with the mouth of a cave here replacing Ford’s door frame) by leaping into the center of the frame, firing off his gun and shouting. It’s such an interesting moment because it’d be easy to imagine a more straight-faced tribute to that composition with Rooster standing in for Ethan Edwards: like that other Wayne icon, Rooster is an ornery outsider who’s too uncouth for civilization. At the end of the film, Rooster, like Ethan, delivers a child back from the wilds, but he then returns to his position on the outside, as evidenced by Mattie’s attempts to locate him again many years later. Rooster, though, doesn’t walk sadly off into the distance as Ethan does: when he appears in that famous Searchers frame, he’s glaring at the camera, hollering and pointing his gun at the audience, announcing that he’s not the kind of antihero who goes quietly in the end.
JB: Speaking of paying homage, one of the things I appreciate about the Coens’ film is that they demonstrate such respect for Hathaway’s original. The sight of John Wayne’s Rooster with reins in his teeth and guns in each hand, riding hard toward Ned Pepper’s gang for an outnumbered duel in a valley meadow is one of cinema’s classic images—the stuff of AFI clip reels. “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” is one of those lines that encodes on the brain via osmosis. Like Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contenda” line in On the Waterfront, you needn’t have actually seen the film to quote it and to feel its weight. The two best sequences in the Coens’ film, I believe, are Rooster’s ride through the night to save Mattie and Mattie’s determined crossing of the river with Little Blackie, but those aren’t the scenes that fans of True Grit came to see. We came to see Rooster put the reins in his teeth. That’s the signature moment of Hathaway’s film.
So how do the Coens handle it? Well, the shootouts themselves are something of a push. Hathaway’s film does a better job of stringing out the tension before the shootout to increase the drama of the gunfight. The scene opens with Lucky Ned and his gang emerging through some trees and stopping short. Then there’s a cut to a shot of Rooster, riding slowly out of trees at the other end of the meadow—his figure distant and small within the vast frame, yet still imposing. Then we get a terrific closeup of Duvall’s Lucky Ned, the camera tilted upward to capture the treetops and mountain behind him. Then we get a long shot of the meadow and the distant standoff: the bad guys on the left, the good guy on the right, setting the stage. From there, Hathaway mostly cuts back and forth between closeups of Rooster and Lucky Ned until the shooting begins. The pacing is superb. The staging is western-classic. The setting is spectacular. Here, in the prelude to the action, is where Hathaway’s film really shines.
In contrast, the standoff in the Coens’ film feels a bit rushed, as if it’s missing a few beats. But I absolutely adore how they get to this scene: Whereas Hathaway simply cuts from a shot of Mattie and LaBoeuf walking toward a view of the valley floor to a shot of Lucky Ned riding out of the trees, the Coens employ a crane shot that rises above LaBoeuf and Mattie as they turn to look down on the meadow below, much in the same way that Siskel and Ebert used to turn from their spot in the balcony toward the vast theater screen on At the Movies. This shot instantly emphasizes the proximity of LaBoeuf to Rooster, which isn’t incidental, but more significantly it acknowledges the cinematic significance of the scene that’s about to unfold. It’s as if the Coens are saying to the audience, “Yes, we know this is the scene you’ve been waiting for. It’s the scene we’ve been waiting for, too. So let’s all sit back and watch it unfold.”
What does unfold, for the most part, feels quite a bit like Hathaway’s film. I give the edge to the Coens in terms of their cutting of the action, and their treatment of the shot that kills Lucky Ned—capturing him from LaBoeuf’s distant view and creating a moment of uncertainty before Ned falls off his horse—but they don’t try to rewrite the scene in any significant way. They tip their cap to Hathaway’s interpretation and follow it rather closely. What’s most different about these scenes, as we’ve already implied, is the tone. In Hathaway’s version, Rooster redeems himself just by showing up. Only moments before, Mattie complains to Ned Pepper (of all people), “Rooster Cogburn is no good friend of mine. He’s a drunken, gabbing fool. He led me right into your hands, and now he’s left me with a gang of cutthroats. Is that what they call grit in Fort Smith? We call it something else in Yell County.” Thus, by taking on Lucky Ned, Rooster proves his grit—and if that wasn’t obvious, Mattie narrates the action: “No grit? Rooster Cogburn?” But in the Coens’ film, the shootout is less about Rooster than it is about the three collective heroes: Rooster taking on four armed men; LaBoeuf saving Rooster by gunning down Lucky Ned; and then, immediately after, Mattie killing Tom Chaney. In the Coens’ film, all of that runs together, redefining where the shootout starts and ends. In their film, Rooster doesn’t prove his grit with a gun—because we always believed he could use one well. He proves it by what happens next: carrying Mattie to safety.
EH: Yes, and that brings us back to Adam Zanzie’s analysis of both of these films as violent revenge fantasies. In a subtle way, the climax of the Coens’ True Grit suggests that the real worth of Rooster Cogburn is not his status as what Adam calls a “’shoot first, ask questions later’ gun-toting hero,” but his compassion, his loyalty, his determination. Rooster is a killer, a mercenary and a drunk, but when it really matters he’s as effective without a gun as he is with one. The Coens’ film offers Rooster an honorable route into retirement, a role as a father figure that he pointedly does not take, choosing instead to join a travelling western revue of the kind that Robert Altman so poignantly and satirically examined in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. The Coens seldom go easy on their characters, and the missed connections and unresolved feelings lingering at the end of their True Grit are typical of the ambiguity and uncertainty of so many of their endings. Mattie isn’t quite punished for her violent, vengeful quest: she must simply go on living, dealing with the consequences of what she’s done and the kind of person she’s become.
The Coens achieve this more nuanced ending without entirely rejecting or upending Hathaway’s less complex film. As you say, the Coens leave many of Hathaway’s scenes virtually untouched in recreating them, tweaking the staging and editing in subtle ways but not reinventing the wheel when they’ve got a perfectly good, even iconic, action sequence to draw on. Hathaway’s film hints at some of the same issues stirred up by the Coens’ film—the fascination with death, the thin line between revenge and justice, the consequences of violence—but it’s a much lighter film in the end. Not only does it end with Wayne speaking through Rooster, asserting that he may be a “fat old man” but he can still jump a horse, but it draws liberally on the lineage of the John Wayne western. The central heroic trio can even be thought of as a variation on the cast of Howard Hawks’ legendary Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo cycle, with singer Glen Campbell taking on the fresh-faced Ricky Nelson role, Mattie filling the spot usually occupied by a Walter Brennan-type crotchety character actor, and Wayne himself playing both his own stoic lawman character and the Dean Martin/Robert Mitchum drunken sidekick. The villains are eccentric and memorable, too. That’s not really true of Chaney, who despite inspiring this revenge adventure winds up being almost incidental to it, a deliberately pathetic and disappointing anticlimax at the end of a long journey. (The Coens treat Chaney similarly, and even enhance the effect by not showing him at the beginning of the film, holding back his first appearance to intensify the disappointment.) But Hathaway at least makes Ned Pepper strangely charismatic, which is why it makes sense when Mattie confides her distaste for Rooster to him in the original film.
Those are the kinds of small differences that ultimately accumulate to make the Coens’ True Grit and Hathaway’s True Grit surprisingly different despite their surface similarities. One senses that the Wayne True Grit never takes itself entirely seriously, balancing the bloodlust and rage that drive the narrative with silly pratfalls and loopy dialogue, vacillating between gently mocking Wayne’s screen persona and redeeming it. This wavering tone has its charms, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the Coens’ True Grit is the superior film, that it does a better job of pulling everything together into a coherent whole. Hathaway’s film is, like many late Wayne westerns, more about John Wayne than anything else, and it’s interesting for that. The Coens’ film, on the other hand, is about Rooster, and especially about Mattie, about the desire for revenge and its consequences, about confronting death, about growing old and growing up.
JB: I agree. Hathaway’s film is about revenge and consequences and about growing up and growing old, but mostly it’s about our affection for John Wayne. That’s not a putdown. In fact, it’s touching that Wayne gets to pay tribute to his distinguished career in an equally distinguished—if lighthearted and sometimes goofy—manner. In light of the too many movies in recent years in which aged Hollywood stars of one caliber or another try to pretend that nothing’s changed despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (think: Sylvester Stallone) or simply fail to recapture the essence of what made them special in the first place (think: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal You’re Fucking With Me, Right? (sorry, Keith)), it shouldn’t be taken for granted that Hathaway’s True Grit works by playing to Wayne’s strengths. It was the right role at the right time.
On that note, credit the Coens for realizing that their True Grit couldn’t work in quite the same way—not unless Bridges played on his own image by going Full Dude, if you know what I mean. Whereas Hathaway’s film wins us over with nostalgia—and, to be fair, a pretty terrific final action setpiece that could have worked in any film—the Coens come at us from a different direction, offering a young actress we’ve never heard of and handing her the reins to carry in her teeth. This is Steinfeld’s film, and Mattie’s. Near the start of the movie there’s a terrific scene in which Mattie stuffs paper inside her father’s hat so that it doesn’t fall over her eyes, rolls up the sleeves of his coat to expose her hands and takes hold of his inelegant pistol, prepping for a gunfight like any western hero while underlining how far she is from actually being one. In that moment, Mattie is heading into a world that’s darker and more dangerous than she can comprehend, and Rooster is right to try to leave her behind. But when Mattie rides her horse into that river without a moment’s hesitation (“Go, Little Blackie!”) it becomes clear that this isn’t a swan song for a washed up hero so much as it is a celebration of a new one. Mattie is the one with true grit.