“Punishment Comes One Way Or Another”: A Review of True Grit

Editor's Note: This review contains spoilers. Lots of 'em. Don't read this if you don't want to know how this movie ends.  However, if you've seen it and you're looking for a good movie to reflect on theologically and to maybe share with your congregation, read on…

True-grit-2010-big "True Grit": Directed and screenplay adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country for Old Men”, “Fargo”).  Starring Jeff Bridges (Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn), Matt Damon (LaBoeuf), Hailee Steinfeld (Mattie Ross), and Josh Brolin (Tom Chaney)

“You must pay for everything in this world one way or another; there is nothing free save the grace of God.”—Mattie Ross, True Grit

“True Grit” is the tale of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross and her determination to seek vengeance on her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney.  After a fierce battle of wills, Mattie hires U.S. Marshall Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn, said to be the “meanest” and “most pitiless” of the marshals, to aid her in tracking and capturing Chaney.  Mattie chooses Cogburn because of his penchant for bringing his fugitives back dead rather than alive.  Along their journey, the duo is joined by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, also seeking Chaney, who plans on bringing him back to Texas to face the hangman’s noose for shooting a Senator and collecting a substantial reward for his capture.  

Sitting in the darkened movie theatre, watching this film, I was struck by how different this Western was from those I grew up watching.  “True Grit” is most assuredly a story of retribution, but it does not glorify vengeance, nor couple it with heroism as so many others do.  “True Grit” reveals how Mattie’s single-minded vengeance destroys her relationships and, ultimately, her sense of self.

Surprisingly, in the Coens’ production, the climax of the film is not Cogburn’s wrathful horseback rampage into the midst of Lucky Ned’s gang, reins in his teeth, guns blazing; rather, the climax of the movie is when Mattie fulfills her self-designated mission of killing Tom Chaney.  No sooner does Mattie shoot and kill Chaney with LaBoeuf’s carbine than the young woman is propelled backwards into a pit and disturbs a nest of rattlesnakes.  Mattie is bitten by one of the deadly creatures before her rescue from the pit by Cogburn.  Cogburn attempts to suck out the venomous poison and on Mattie’s own pony, Little Blackie, races to find medical assistance to save the young girl’s life.  Little Blackie is so exhausted by the weight of the two that Cogburn speeds the horse on by stabbing its hindquarters with his knife.  Little Blackie falls, spent and injured, before Mattie and Rooster reach the doctor; Rooster shoots the pony and carries Mattie just shy of the doctor’s lodgings, shooting his weapon in the air to alert them of the need for help.  Just as it began, the movie concludes with a voiceover from older Mattie, recollecting what happened to her over the course of the twenty-five years since she killed Tom Chaney.  

Mattie receives her retribution, but at what cost to herself, to her humanity?  

Mattie’s retribution serves to annihilate her sense of community.  She feels as though she is the only one in her family up to the task of finding her father’s murderer—her siblings are too young and her mother doesn’t know how to handle business.  This aspect of her vendetta isolates her from her family and breaks ‘traditional’ familial roles (the daughter, in many regards, has become the head of the household).  It is because of Mattie’s persistence that Cogburn and LaBoeuf strike out together to capture the elusive Chaney, but it is also her desire for retribution on her “own terms” that ultimately pulls the team apart—with LaBoeuf requiring Chaney to come back to Texas for his execution and Cogburn siding with the young woman’s demands. The clearest example of Mattie’s lost sense of community comes at the end of the movie, as her older self explains what happened to her while she recovered from her trauma: she never saw LaBoeuf again and Cogburn left before she awoke, not affording her the opportunity to reconnect with the people with whom she survived this ordeal.  She writes to Cogburn, inviting him to her town to collect the rest of his reward, but years go by without response, until—a quarter century later—Cogburn asks her to see him in a Wild West show he is headlining. However, as Mattie is told, he died three days before she arrived.  She has his body transported to her family’s burial site so that she can tend his grave, but her single-minded vengeance left her a hard, lonely woman with no family connections or community.  

Throughout the film, one can see Mattie’s sense of self slipping away as she becomes further and further consumed by her vengeance.  Mattie’s pony, Little Blackie, which she purchased for the sole purpose of pursuing Chaney, is symbolic of young Mattie and her innocence.  Both Mattie and Little Blackie are young, spirited, and, like Cogburn, they exhibit “true grit.”  When Mattie first mounts Little Blackie the pony is a bit unpredictable and stubborn, traits that the pony shares with its new owner.  During Little Blackie’s final ride, the horse could not handle the weight of the two passengers, just as Mattie’s innocence could not handle the gravity of what she had done and who she had become because of her vendetta.  Cogburn must put down the pony at the end because it could not last any longer through the arduous journey—the journey took its toll, costing Mattie her youthful naïveté and Little Blackie its life.  Again, the conclusion of the movie demonstrates well Mattie’s loss of herself. 

The rattlesnake’s deadly poison reflects how retribution can poison an individual’s personhood by inflicting all manner of harm, from the physical to the spiritual.  Throughout the film, Cogburn is mindful of placing a rope around the perimeter of his bedding in order to keep snakes away.  When Mattie asks him if she should have one as well, he says, “The snakes will not bother you.  You’re too little and boney.”  She doesn’t fear the snakes until the second time the team is torn asunder and Mattie decides that she will continue on her mission alone; after the argument, she takes Rooster’s snake rope for protection during the night.  This reveals that Mattie’s innocence is still intact until she acts on her desire for retribution in killing Tom Chaney; once she kills Chaney, once she acts on her vengeance, she is cast into a pit and debilitated by the bite’s crippling venom.  Mattie loses her arm to the venom, and a part of herself to her obsession with retribution.  

“True Grit” — in addition to being a well-made film with its own style and spectacular acting — serves as a powerful reminder of the emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual damage of vengeance. 

3 replies
  1. Heidi Haverkamp
    Heidi Haverkamp says:

    Thank you for this insightful piece, Christine. It made me cringe – I haven’t seen the movie, mostly because I had a feeling the violence would be too much for me. But powerful stuff in a society that longs to believe that justice is the same as retribution.

  2. Julia
    Julia says:

    Thanks for this review. I loved this movie and the original novel by Charles Portis. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about the use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as the base of the soundtrack.

  3. Christine M. Hinton
    Christine M. Hinton says:

    Thank you for your kind words, Heidi and Julia.
    As far as the soundtrack is concerned, Julia, a few thoughts:
    1.) I consider the soundtrack, particularly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, to serve a similar purpose to the biblical passages throughout the movie–they stand in stark juxtaposition with the tale of a young woman’s desire for retribution. Similar to Heidi’s comment about how society in so many ways equates retribution with justice, I read the soundtrack as social commentary, holding up a mirror that reflects contemporary society’s values and the hypocrisy that can come from inconsistency in belief and corresponding action(s).
    2.) After I wrote this piece, it struck me that it would be fascinating to trace what could be viewed as Cogburn’s “redemption.” I need to ponder this theme further, however, if you consider Cogburn “redeemed” through his experiences within the film (his care of and sacrifice for Mattie’s benefit and well-being), then I also view the use of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as Cogburn’s theme.
    Thanks for asking about the soundtrack, Julia; you’ve given me more to think about–which I always appreciate!


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