True Grit is about justice—both human and Divine.
It starts with a call for both Old Testament and American justice on the 1870s frontier. It ends with a neat demonstration of the Law of Return.
The main players in this morality tale are Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the lawman who acts as if he is above both kinds of Law. And Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the 14-year-old girl who starts by invoking the laws of the United States and ends by enacting not just frontier justice, but the most ancient of retributions. And the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who does the best job of staying true to the laws of the land and his own moral code.
The story is set in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (I assume much of the present-day Oklahoma) in the 1870s. The law and lawyers have arrived, and the young heroine deals confidently with both as the film opens. She arranges to have her father’s remains shipped home, dickers with the undertaker over the embalming fees, and outsmarts a frontier horse trader to get back not only the money her father paid for a string of ponies, but a settlement on the horse his killer stole.
She next goes shopping for a bounty hunter to bring back Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father and escaped into Indian Territory. She’s tried the official law—the sheriff—and been told it’s hopeless.
The scene that sets up Cogburn’s character, and usefulness to Mattie, is played for laughs. But it is chilling. As he testifies in court, he lies. He reveals that he’s killed a couple dozen men in the course of his enforcement career, and implies many of the deaths were more a matter of convenience than self-defense. The only thing that separates him from some of the outlaws he pursues is his tin star.
We learn later he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War. Quantrill’s men waged pro-Confederate guerilla warfare on the Missouri-Kansas border. Frank and Jesse James were among its members.
And yet, Mattie the legal scholar, the upright Bible-quoting maid, hires Cogburn. Fifty dollars down, another $50 when he produces Chaney for trial in Arkansas. She will have none of the assistance of LaBoeuf, who’s pursuing Chaney for the reward offered in the state of Texas. Mattie wants a more direct justice. Chaney will hang for her father’s murder. His other crimes mean nothing to her.
Hiring Cogburn is the first act Mattie takes that puts her on the edge of established law. Her decision to ride along instead of following her mother’s request to go home puts her decidedly over it, making her legally a runaway. But she’s chosen to follow the law laid down by her own moral code in seeing that her father is avenged. It’s a Law older than the Bible she quotes, older even than the Old Testament justice of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
As the film unfolds, we see Cogburn and Mattie forming a bond. We see him use his skills to track Chaney, save Mattie’s and LaBoeuf’s lives, and his own. And yet . . . right after his famous charge against four armed assailants, he loses his beautiful and valuable horse. Losing a horse was a powerful blow both symbolically and literally in the Old West. A horse was transportation and a friend. It could be the difference between life and death—probably why the traditional frontier penalty for stealing someone’s horse was death.
As Cogburn lies pinned beneath his crippled mount, LaBoeuf takes a long and skillful shot that kills the last bandit and saves Cogburn. Within seconds of screen time, he’s knocked savagely on the head by Chaney, who threatens Mattie.
Mattie picks up LaBoeuf’s rifle and shoots Chaney dead. Cold triumph, bloody jubilation, burn cold in her eyes. And within a few seconds of screen time, she’s tumbled backwards into a pit. Before she can be rescued, she turns back into a frightened child and is bitten by a rattler.
Cogburn races to a frontier doctor with her. He rides her little Mustang so ruthlessly it drops from exhaustion. He runs with Mattie in his arms until he is almost at that point himself.
We hear in the voice-over that ends the film that he stayed until she was out of danger, then vanished with LaBoeuf, presumably to collect the Texas reward on Chaney. She loses her arm to the effects of the snakebite.
With Newtonian precision, Mattie’s acts have rebounded. She loses her surrogate father, her arm, her horse, her innocence. And yet, if she’d stuck to her original intent to bring Chaney back for the courts to deal with, she might have been killed. Trying to parse the justice and injustice of that scene is difficult. But so is sticking to our principles.
LaBoeuf did the best job of that—and lost the least. Was that fair? Maybe so, maybe not. I suppose it depends on how we define “fair.” Justice holds scales in one hand, a sword in the other. Both have their uses. The best we can do is weigh our actions carefully and try to stay within the Law.