True Grit

Hey guys! It’s Scarlett, reporting as usual.But I’ve made a choice to go by my first name, Gabriella, from now on. Both professionally as a writer and personally as a feminist it makes sense to own my name. My old comments will appear as Scarlett but it’s still me. And for those of you who are regulars to this site, feel free to call me Gabbie; if someone calls me Gabriella, I tend to turn around and look for the grandmother that I was named for.

XXOO Gabbie.

On the surface, True Grit seems like an odd choice to be critiquing for a site like Hathor, but watching it, I was thoroughly impressed with both Mattie Ross and the actress who plays her, Hailee Steinfeld. (In a rare example of Hollywood casting true to age, both Mattie and Hailee are fourteen.)

Set in the 1800’s – sometime after the American Civil War –  Mattie’s father is killed by Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin) and since the local law enforcement is completely disinterested in tracking him, she seeks the assistance of US Marshall Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help bring him in. Rooster in turn strikes a deal with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Neither man is happy to have Mattie along and several times insist that she go home to her mother and young siblings, but she is adamant about personally bringing Cheney to justice.

Mattie is the voice of reason between a half-blind Marshall who will drink anything he can get his hands on and a Ranger with an over-inflated sense of his own achievements. Despite her age, sex and inexperience, she keeps up with the two men, and, such as in a scene where she has to climb a high tree to cut down a hanged man, better suited to the task than the aged Rooster. At another point, LaBoeuf concedes that she held her own.

Oh, and in the beginning of the movie, Mattie strikes one hell of a deal with the owner of the stables her father was killed in, using legal language with ease and ‘bargaining’ the man pretty much 100% up to what she asked of him in the first place. But the thing is, despite all her talents – her obvious intellect and legal knowledge despite being a teenager, her quick learning when it comes to riding, her ability to hold her own among far more experienced men in a hostile environment – she doesn’t come across as impossible perfect, or a tomboy. She’s a girl who would rather not be there but who wants to see her father’s killer brought to justice and will do what it takes to achieve that.

And, thank god, because of Mattie’s age, there’s no attempt at developing a love  interest. (Though there’s a kind of creepy/darkly funny exchange between Mattie and LaBouef towards the beginning of the movie.) Still, I can’t help but wondering what might have been done had Mattie been twenty instead of fourteen. (Mind you, a twenty-year-old is still young enough to be Damon’s daughter…)

There is, I believe, only one other speaking woman’s part – and that a tiny one, the owner of a boarding house. Twice Mattie has an exchange with her over the accommodations – she’s forced to share a bed with a wheeezy old woman who hogs the blanket. I suppose this technically counts as passing the Bechdel test, but I was far more impressed with the way Mattie’s conversations with Rooster and LaBouef are, if not quite equal, than a far cry of adults condescendingly addressing a child, either. And True Grit has a far better reason for Mattie to be the only female among males than most fictional media does; Rooster and LaBouef didn’t want her around, tried to send her back by force, but she insisted, as the oldest, of her right to personally see her father’s killer brought to justice.

Despite Bridges, Damon and Brolin getting credit in that order, Steinfeld has far more screentime; if there’s a single scene she isn’t in, I forgot it. (Well, apart from Mattie’s scenes as a grown-up at the end, but that’s still Mattie, so it’s difficult not to count that.) She has about twice as much screentime as Damon, and a good third extra than Bridges. (Brolin has about three scenes.) And like Mattie holds her own among much older, more experienced men, Steinfeld holds her own among much older, more experienced actors. Oh, and she’s way cuter in her IMDB pics than she is in the movie, so kudos for the film not having this impossibly glamorous young woman traipsing around in the wild, wild west with perfect hair and makeup.

I had some issues with the ending which I think is worth discussing, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found Mattie to be a fleshed-out character who could easily have been gender flipped. This is a Coen brothers movie, which I know isn’t everyone’s thing, but if it’s your cup of tea, then I definitely recommend it, both as a film and a damn good portrayal of a female character.


  1. Sabrina says

    True Grit is coming out here next week so I hope I can see it then. 😀

    Regarding the screen time and overall story: Why was Steinfeld nominated Best Supporting Actress? Seriously, wtf?!?

    • says

      Apparently in hopes that she’d have a shot at winning. Because of her youth, the Academy would never give her the Best Actress gong, so the filmmakers decided to enter her for Best Supporting Actress instead. It’s been a controversial choice, and it’s certainly a cynical comment on how the Academy operates. As dearly beloved critic Mark Kermode says, if Steinfeld is a supporting actress, then Matt Damon is the lead actress.

      Politics of award nominations aside, I really enjoyed the film. It lacks the depth of the Coens’ best work, IMO, but Bridges is delightfully hammy and Steinfeld anchors the film with an astoundingly assured performance. All in all, a highly entertaining couple of hours.

      • Sabrina says

        Apparently in hopes that she’d have a shot at winning. Because of her youth, the Academy would never give her the Best Actress gong, so the filmmakers decided to enter her for Best Supporting Actress instead. It’s been a controversial choice, and it’s certainly a cynical comment on how the Academy operates.

        Yes, that’s true. :(

    • Gabriella says

      I wrote this before realising Steinfeld and Bridges had been nominated, and it had me scratching my head. I know there’ve been contentious choices in the past – Meryll Streep and Julianne Moore getting Supporting to Nicole Kidman’s Lead in The Hours, the Dreamgirls PTP continually pushing Beyonce Knowles to be nominated for Lead and Jennifer Hudson in Supporting – but at least then I could see the logic of ‘well, they have about the same screen time, and SOMEONE has to settle for Supporting’. But with True Girl it’s like, er… you can clearly see that Steinfeld has more screen time than the guy who got the LEAD nom. Apart from the epilogue with middle-aged Mattie, I believe Steinfeld is in every single scene, whereas Rooster doesn’t come in for a good twenty minutes.

      But yeah – great movie, though you need to have some appreciation for the Coen Brothers to enjoy it – one person I’ve spoken to hated it for that reason, and another won’t see it ‘cos he heartily dislikes their style, and this is a guy who makes a concerted effort to see all the major oscar pics before the ceromony.

      • Sabrina says

        Yes, exactly. If there was another leading woman then it would at least be understandable. But this is kinda messed up.

        I’m personally rather neutral on that one, haha. I haven’t seen enough of their movies to either hate or love their style.

        • Gabriella says

          I’m kind of like that. I really have to be in the mood to see one of their movies, and it will usually be because I like one of the actors in it. (Been following Damon since Good Will Hunting. But I won’t not see something if it’s been chosen for a DVD night, either. But I can def see that some people think they’re geniuses and others wouldn’t go if you paid them, even rabid Oscar followers like my friend :p

  2. says

    @OP: good write up, totally how i felt too! loved her character.

    @sabrina: yeah, cosign. i think it was just the only way the oscar people could rationalize giving her a nomination.

    • Gabriella says

      I don’t know if they’re showing her respect by pushing her for SOMETHING, or disrespect by seeming to say ‘well, you’ve got buckley’s of winning the Lead, so here’s a consolation’. And also I feel it’s a bit of a slap in the face to the actresses who actually DESERVE the supporting nom – if she wins, then someone has lost to give the girl a consolation.

      At any rate, I hope Steinfeld comes out of this with sanity and ego relatively preserved. I read a lot about child stars as a hobby, and how many of them that end up completely fucked up is tragic. In fact, there’s only ONE former chidl star that I can think of who seems to have come out of it with sanity, health and career in tact, Jodie Foster. One In a century-plus of filmmkaing.

  3. SunlessNick says

    And for those of you who are regulars to this site, feel free to call me Gabbie

    Nice to, sort of, re-meet you, Gabbie. :)

    I haven’t seen this, but you’ve interested me in doing so.

    • Gabriella says

      Hee, I knew someone would do that, and for some reason I can’t explain, I had a feeling that person would be you :p

  4. says

    I had one of my oral exams on the Coen brothers, so I am terribly looking forward to seeing this film and not even reading this review so I won’t get spoiled. But I only hear good things from those sources I listen to.

  5. megs says

    I loved this movie. I’d seen the original back when I was about a 14 year old girl, but this resonated with me so much more. I also thought the billing was funny – I forgot Josh Brolin was in it by the time he showed up where you could really see him. But I think the billing, plus the supporting nom, is partly informed by trying to keep a young actress out of too much spotlight and responsibility, which I suppose I can understand. Teen girl actresses can have their lives taken over by the spotlight.

    I may be a bit spoilery below:

    I thought the scene with LaBouef (Matt damon) being there when Mattie woke up and telling her he’d have kissed her if she wasn’t sick or was pretty a little creepy. But I think it’s important because it keeps the audience from liking him until maybe about the part where he starts to respect Mattie himself. There was a lot of that undercutting of Mattie as a heroine in her initial scenes with LaBouef and Cogburn. We’ve just seen her be brave (sleeping next to coffins), patient (with her next, and living, bunk companion), and smart (her encounter with the man who had sold her father the ponies) – but then these men who don’t know all that treat her like a 14 year old girl and at the same time reinforce that she is not seen as pretty, which makes her dealing with financial matters firmly defined as smarts and not pretty girl wheedling. Then her determination is obvious to the audience as a continuation of her character and not an attempt to impress the two men. It’s not even just her determination to see her father’s killer punished – it is character. Which you’d think would be obvious based on the title, but this is such good showing. I was impressed.

    I also totally flinched at the snakes and cried for Little Blackie. That was such a good little horse.

    • Gabriella says

      Actually, the snake thing made me wonder ‘do American movies have any venomous snakes OTHER than rattlers?’ Because that seems to be the snake of choice when making a point about ‘SNAKES! DANGER!’.

      And yeah – the Little Blackie thing upset me, too. But I’m one of those people who can sit through Hostel without blinking but so much as pull a dog’s tail and I’m distressed :p

      With the initial scene with LaBeouf and Mattie – I thought he did it more to wind her up than anything. I got the impression he first thought of her as a brat who needed a spanking for her childish disobedience then gradually as a worthy companion but never as old enough to entertain romantic thoughts. I was talking to my beta about the original (which I haven’t seen – can’t stand John Wayne) and how Mattie was played by an actress older than the character and there was an implication about an attraction between the two, I didn’t get that feeling in this movie. Though it did make me wonder how young Hollywood would think they could get away with going when creating Mattie as a love interest for LaBeous, given that twenty would still have been twenty years younger than Damon.

      • sbg says

        Actually, most of them are rattlesnakes. And the ones that aren’t, aren’t found in the region a western movie would be set in.

        • Attackfish says

          exactly, I mean you have water moccasins, which are a southeastern problem, Copperheads, which are an eastern problem more generally, and you have coral snakes, which can be found in the very southern parts of the west, but are very nonaggressive, and can’t bite through shoes or denim, so are an afterthought. Generally, people get bitten when they step on them in bare feet and sandals, and not much otherwise. West of Eastern Texas, Rattlers are pretty much it.

          • Gabriella says

            Ah, OK. Makes more sense now. From someone who has no knowledge of US geography barring the vauge location of a few states, it comes across as a bit cliched. (We need a scary snake! And rattlesnakes make a scary sound!) Didn’t realise there’s actually some basis for it.

            • The Other Anne says

              It is cliche! But yeah, we don’t get much venomous variety among snakes ’round these parts. We’ve got a plethora on nonvenomous snakes, but those aren’t nearly as useful as a plot point, I guess.

              This became super apparent to me when I went to Namibia and Zambia. In North America we really, really have a lacking of threatening animals. I mean, sure, deer kill a lot of people, and moose, bears, and mountain lions (and our measly amount of venomous snakes), but as a whole we don’t have much to fear from the NA wildlife.

              In Africa, on the other hand, you’ve got to look out for mosquitos, parasites, hippos, buffalo, lions, leopards, crocodiles….and then the snakes. Oh, boy, the venomous snakes they have. We saw only one in the wild–a teeny pit viper in the Namib Desert–but they’ve also got mambas, cobras, gaboon vipers, adders, etc. etc. I looove snakes. I was disappointed I didn’t see more there! 😀 I’ve actually never come across a rattler in the wild, though, so I guess that’s something too. I could only ever find garter snakes. And the one time I caught a little water moccasin…luckily, even though I picked it up, and it lashed at me, it did not bite me. But then the adults cut off its head, and that was sad.

          • megs says

            Yeah, I grew up with Copperheads in the south (my cat would leave baby ones with their heads missing by the door for us because she loved us) and would occasionally see water mocs in creeks while out exploring. Snakes don’t generally scare me, especially ones I recognize like garters. But rattlers do freak me out, maybe because I love westerns and they are all over the place there and I’ve never seen one in real life except in a zoo.

            • Attackfish says

              Water mocs freak me out, partly because my brother’s friend almost died after one bit him, and where I grew up, the gators and the mocs were the reason I wasn’t allowed near the water. Now I live in the center of rattler country, and they don’t really scare me, because they don’t bite humans without giving fair warning. Most people who get bitten are either drunk, children, or developmentally disabled.

              Hollywood is actually right in the middle of the range of the pacific rattler, which is the most aggressive rattler, (and has a small territory that is one of the most heavily populated in North America) and during El Niño years, a bunch of them get washed out of their winter hibernation dens and into the ocean, and they swim back to shore in a really foul mood and the ERs get flooded with drunk beachgoers who tried to play with them.

  6. says

    Love this movie. Even though it barely passes the Bechdel test, it is obviously a story about a woman. Which is why the billing and the nominations kill me. Steinfeld carries the film. This is Mattie’s story and everyone else is important in how they relate to Mattie. Yet I’ve seen promos that don’t mention her name at all, just the three male names (one of whom, as you mentioned, is in only two or three scenes). It feels like a slap in the face to me. Even though the entire work is about you and your adventures, we won’t represent you in the advertising.

    • Gabriella says

      We were talking a while back about how the Bechdel test can’t be used as a set-in-stone rule and I think this movie is a valid argument for that. It barely passes through a few brief exchanges with an inconsequential character – one exchange of which is a means of introducing LaBeouf – but what is far, FAR more interesting regarding Mattie’s strength as a character is her interactions with the two males.

      The only thing I can think of re Steinfeld not being mentioned in the promos – at least until AFTER she was nominated – was the punch it packed to have this nobody come out of nowhere and deliver one of the most amazing child performances ever. But I suspect that might be giving TPTB too much credit :(

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