Charles Portis, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen, 2010
#12, 2010 Skandies
I knew very little about this movie going into it. I knew that it was a Western and that there had been an earlier True Grit with John Wayne in it. But the posters were almost entirely text, and they advertised that the movie had three stars: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the movie is actually about a fourteen-year-old girl.
The premise of the movie is that young Mattie Ross's father has been murdered by a no-good varmint, and as her mother isn't up to the task, Mattie has come to town to settle his affairs. Discovering that her father's killer has joined up with a gang of criminals out in the territory and that the U.S. marshals don't consider apprehending him a priority, Mattie takes it upon herself to hire the meanest bounty hunter she can find, Rooster Cogburn — and to accompany him in his pursuit. The title of the movie has a double meaning: while Mattie says on multiple occasions that she selected the ornery Cogburn over her other choices because she was looking for a man with "grit," the true grit is possessed by Mattie herself. She's the one venturing out into an anarchic wasteland to take on a pack of killers as a pubescent female.
Of course, Mattie isn't real. She's a fictional character, and making her a girl was a deliberate storytelling choice. And it's easy to see how it helps to drive home the character's courage and determination. Hunting down a band of Wild West outlaws is more dangerous for a girl than for a boy the same age. She's less likely to know how to handle a horse and a gun, far more severely outmatched in a physical fight with an adult man, and if she does fall into the gang's clutches, it won't be more than a few minutes before she's repeatedly raped. Then there are the social obstacles she has to overcome. A Matthew Ross who demanded to join the manhunt would simply be doing what was expected of him, proving his mettle and taking steps toward joining the patriarchy. But Mattie Ross isn't supposed to be taking such steps; no less than for Baleful in Game of Thrones, the destiny set down for Mattie is to become a mother, or failing that, some sort of spinsterly schoolmarm. To buck her social role in this way takes as much pluck as braving the physical danger.
But as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me: do I actually mean her social role, or her generic role? Because when I said that joining the posse would be expected of a fourteen-year-old boy and therefore less remarkable, I wasn't basing that on a study of social attitudes of the 1870s; I meant that it would be expected of a fictional character in the timeworn subgenre of Westerns about a wet-behind-the-ears lad who faces peril out on the frontier and thereby grows into a Real Man. So if genre considerations are the real measure of a character, that raises the question of what genre True Grit falls into. Yes, it's a Western, but what kind? How wild is its West?
For instance, recent years have seen the rise of a sort of meta-genre of female empowerment. The martial arts movies that have popped up on the Skandies lists have all featured female ninjas who are portrayed as every bit as capable and respected as the male ones. The producers of the '00s Battlestar Galactica took the Dirk Benedict role of the hotshot fighter pilot and cast Katee Sackhoff — and again, in the world of the story sexual equality had reached the point that none of the other characters saw this as unusual (at least not in the episodes I watched). Initially I wondered whether something similar was going on in True Grit; no great fuss is made over the fact that Mattie's a girl, and I wondered whether it might even be an innovation for the 2010 version. It's not, it turns out, and by the end of the movie it's clear that it couldn't have been. The Starbuck switcheroo is supposed to work in three phases, I gather: initially, we're expected to be skeptical to see a woman in a traditionally male role; soon we're impressed by how well she handles it; finally we're sufficiently used to it that we take no more notice of her sex than do the people in the story, and our attitudes have successfully been changed. Here that would not only be ahistorical but would also undermine the theme. If we're really supposed to think that Mattie's sex is no big deal, then that means she has fewer obstacles to surmount and therefore wins fewer points for grit. So that's out. And we're certainly not supposed to move past being impressed by her. The 2010 version therefore goes the other way. Whereas the 1969 True Grit blunted the effect of Mattie's stated age and sex by casting an androgynous 21-year-old in the role, in the update she's played by an actual middle schooler with long braids, a dramatic improvement in both senses of the word. At every moment we're reminded of her vulnerability to the dangers around her.
But again, how much danger she actually is in is a function of genre. I can easily imagine Disney's next animated heroine being a daughter of of the Old West, a CGI version of Mattie with big cartoon eyes to go with her braids. There'd be plenty of social obstacles for her to overcome, plenty of scenes of cowboys scoffing at the idea of a girl going on a frontier adventure. But she'd never actually be in any danger, any more than Rapunzel is in danger when Flynn takes her to the thug hangout in Tangled. Tangled is a Disney cartoon. Heroines don't get raped and murdered in Disney cartoons. When they get into trouble, it's just pro forma excitement before the inevitable happy ending. The audience can relax. What made me uneasy about True Grit was that up until the end I wasn't quite sure what genre I was watching. To a great extent, it seemed like a comedy — though the dialogue is close to identical to that of the 1969 version, the line readings are much funnier. So I'd start to suspect that nothing too awful would befall Mattie… and then someone would be gruesomely murdered, and I'd remember that the Coens' last adaptation was No Country for Old Men, and I'd wonder how safe Mattie really was. Note that I'm not arguing that it's automatically bad not to clearly signal the genre conventions within which your story is operating. I'm just saying that it's interesting. Here I was, watching this movie, and the appealing heroine was at the mercy of the bad guys, and I was neither scared, nor was I not scared. I was scared of the possibility that I might have to be scared. I was meta-scared.