Making the Grades
It has been a long time since I saw the original True Grit starring John Wayne as the drunken, eye-patched-wearing US Marshal ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and country western singer Glen Campbell as the smug Texas Ranger named La Boeuf. But from what I remember, the 1969 film didn’t gush (as in blood) with the kind of content the Coen brothers have put in their version.
In the 2010 adaptation, Jeff Bridges stars as the snarling, liquor guzzling, one-eyed Rooster who would just as gladly shoot the criminals he’s trailing than haul them back to face a court of law. After being questioned about his trigger-happy ways in a trial, the unconventional lawman is approached by the precocious 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld).
By Mattie’s own admission, her mother is illiterate, barely able to add or put three letters together. Her father was a horse trader. So none of that explains the young teen’s university level vocabulary. (Many of the characters, including criminals, use poetic prose.) She also has an uncanny grasp of legislation. With that she manages to confound a local businessman and coerce him into buying horses he doesn’t want by threatening him with several points of law.
Mattie wants to hire Rooster to track down the man, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed her father and stole his gold. With the tenacity of a bloodhound she badgers the drunkard until he relents. However when the day comes to set out for Indian country where Tom was last seen, Rooster teams up with a cocky, reward-seeking Texas Ranger named LaBouef (Matt Damon) who is also on Tom’s trail and takes off before Mattie is awake.
Not to be robbed of her chance to exact justice, the feisty girl catches up with the two lawmen and joins the pursuit. Except for Cogburn’s incessant use of alcohol, the frequent depiction of smoking and a mass hanging, True Grit could almost qualify as a family film at this point, at least for teens.
But once the group crosses the river, the violence begins. Not at all deterred by the mores of society, Rooster shoots at anyone who crosses him. Other characters are equally uncivilized. Trying to stop his injured partner from squealing on a group of thieves, one man cuts off the victim’s fingers before stabbing him. Rooster reacts by shooting the man in the head. (Blood splatters across the marshal’s face.) But the murders don’t end there. By the time Mattie finally stumbles upon Tom, there are plenty of corpses lying frozen on the trail. (In a seeming attempt to keep a PG-13 rating, the filmmakers rein in the use of profanities and sexual depictions in order to include more violence.) Unfortunately the cold conditions have hardened Mattie as well. Less interested in seeing Tom hang for his crime, she appears eager to mete out her own justice, Rooster-style, than let the lawbreaker have his day in front of a judge.
Like the cowboys who ride the open range, the "Western" looks to be a thing of the past, rarely employed in Hollywood. And this movie won’t do much to revive the genre, at least for family viewers. Though Mattie is determined to find her father’s killer, it is a resolve that eventually hardens her from a garrulous girl into a brusque, glowering woman. She may have True Grit, but if this is what it looks like, it sure isn’t pretty.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about True Grit.
What educational opportunities might Mattie have had in a small frontier town? How likely is it that she would have such an in depth grasp of legal knowledge? What different attitudes about the law do Rooster and LaBoeuf have? How do they each feel about their roles as officers of the law?
Do you think Rooster Cogburn uses his position as a US Marshal to justify a thirst for killing? Does he experience any consequences for his "shoot on sight" approach to justice?
What skills did a tracker need in order to follow a criminal? How difficult might it have been to find someone in the wilderness?