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.
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.