The Justice of True Grit

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.”

Perhaps it’s the same law that Cogburn follows, and his U.S. Marshall’s job is just a cover for his meting out what he perceives as justice. His character is certainly complex, and I may be unnecessarily biased by the visceral chill I get in hearing “Quantrill’s Raiders.” They were as sadistic a band as rode in the 19th century. I can’t help but contrast that with the discipline enforced on the Army of Northern Virginia, of which LaBoeuf is a veteran, and wonder if his respect for the law of the land was in part formed by it.

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.

About Kathy Nance
  • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

    I read an interesting article claiming Cogburn is Odin and Mattie is Tyr. That idea has kind of stuck with me.

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      Here’s the link to the article connecting True Grit to Norse mythos: http://www.slate.com/id/2283236/pagenum/all/#p2

    • Kathy Nance

      I just read that article, and it was wonderful. I wanted to put off reading it til I’d written my own. I was aware of it, and thought using the Norse mythos to explain the film was a terrific idea. But I don’t work enough within that tradition, or understand its Gods well enough, to have done the same.

      • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

        Yeah, me either. I just thought it was a nice complement to your piece! :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    I read an interesting article claiming Cogburn is Odin and Mattie is Tyr. That idea has kind of stuck with me.

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      Here’s the link to the article connecting True Grit to Norse mythos: http://www.slate.com/id/2283236/pagenum/all/#p2

    • Kathy Nance

      I just read that article, and it was wonderful. I wanted to put off reading it til I’d written my own. I was aware of it, and thought using the Norse mythos to explain the film was a terrific idea. But I don’t work enough within that tradition, or understand its Gods well enough, to have done the same.

      • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

        Yeah, me either. I just thought it was a nice complement to your piece! :)

  • Norse Alchemist

    I think you might have gotten that a little mixed up. Rooster never got any karmic action, apparently going on to live as he always had with no ill effects (unless you count reward payments as ill). LaBoeuf “The Beef” on the other hand, is thought to be dead. He’s never seen or heard from again after the knock on the head, never bothered to check on Mattie afterward (which seems odd if he was in decent health, that he never even bothered to track his companion down to see if she survived at least).

    Interestingly, Mattie fits my vision of Tyr more than LaBoef. She lost her arm to a snake (admittedly not the wolf, but Loki did father the great serpent that wraps Midgard) and her pursuit of Justice was more often blind to the “Law.” Tyr has always struck me as upstanding and well versed in the law, as Mattie is, but he seems more interested in bringing justice, even if that violates some of the “laws” that would stand in the way. So in the end, her “loses” might not be Karmic payback, so much as the sacrifice needed to see justice done. If we equate this move with the Norse (which fits now that I think of it) sacrifice is a big part of achieving goals, and has little to do with any sort of cosmic payback for “breaking the laws or doing harm.”

    • Kathy Nance

      Thanks for these thoughts. I also considered looking at the idea of sacrifice in this film, and your view of Mattie’s injuries and losses fits well with the direction I mulled. I think modern people, including Pagans (I can’t speak for Heathens), often are uncomfortable considering sacrifice. We frequently do have to give something up to achieve a worthy goal. Sometimes even things we hold dear. Fear of what that “something” might be, or knowledge of what it is, can impede our growth. Exploring that concept could give us some interesting blog posts and discussions.

      Questions of Law and Justice also are complicated. It’s true that Rooster’s loss of a horse is less than the losses Mattie suffered. But remember, his losses began to accumulate before the action that makes up this film. He’d lost a family, and was living alone and drunk in the back of a Chinese grocery store. I agree he probably continued to live as he had before his adventure with Mattie, but it was a life I and many others would consider sad and solitary.

      I also remember seeing LeBoeuf on his feet and talking before Rooster left with Mattie. I don’t think he was “left for dead.” Rooster said he’d come back for LaBoeuf. If Rooster stayed with Mattie til she was out of danger, then left with LaBoeuf, then he or someone else did perform a rescue. Or, more likely, LaBoeuf’s horse came back and he rescued himself.

      It’s a tribute to the source material and the movie that it’s giving us so much to talk about!

  • Norse Alchemist

    I think you might have gotten that a little mixed up. Rooster never got any karmic action, apparently going on to live as he always had with no ill effects (unless you count reward payments as ill). LaBoeuf “The Beef” on the other hand, is thought to be dead. He’s never seen or heard from again after the knock on the head, never bothered to check on Mattie afterward (which seems odd if he was in decent health, that he never even bothered to track his companion down to see if she survived at least).

    Interestingly, Mattie fits my vision of Tyr more than LaBoef. She lost her arm to a snake (admittedly not the wolf, but Loki did father the great serpent that wraps Midgard) and her pursuit of Justice was more often blind to the “Law.” Tyr has always struck me as upstanding and well versed in the law, as Mattie is, but he seems more interested in bringing justice, even if that violates some of the “laws” that would stand in the way. So in the end, her “loses” might not be Karmic payback, so much as the sacrifice needed to see justice done. If we equate this move with the Norse (which fits now that I think of it) sacrifice is a big part of achieving goals, and has little to do with any sort of cosmic payback for “breaking the laws or doing harm.”

    • Kathy Nance

      Thanks for these thoughts. I also considered looking at the idea of sacrifice in this film, and your view of Mattie’s injuries and losses fits well with the direction I mulled. I think modern people, including Pagans (I can’t speak for Heathens), often are uncomfortable considering sacrifice. We frequently do have to give something up to achieve a worthy goal. Sometimes even things we hold dear. Fear of what that “something” might be, or knowledge of what it is, can impede our growth. Exploring that concept could give us some interesting blog posts and discussions.

      Questions of Law and Justice also are complicated. It’s true that Rooster’s loss of a horse is less than the losses Mattie suffered. But remember, his losses began to accumulate before the action that makes up this film. He’d lost a family, and was living alone and drunk in the back of a Chinese grocery store. I agree he probably continued to live as he had before his adventure with Mattie, but it was a life I and many others would consider sad and solitary.

      I also remember seeing LeBoeuf on his feet and talking before Rooster left with Mattie. I don’t think he was “left for dead.” Rooster said he’d come back for LaBoeuf. If Rooster stayed with Mattie til she was out of danger, then left with LaBoeuf, then he or someone else did perform a rescue. Or, more likely, LaBoeuf’s horse came back and he rescued himself.

      It’s a tribute to the source material and the movie that it’s giving us so much to talk about!


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