True Grit is presumably a revenge tale, a classic narrative structure: a man is murdered and his daughter seeks vengeance. And yet this film is distinctly not a story of revenge even if that’s what sets the action into motion. We never meet the murdered man. And his revenge-seeking daughter does not seem terribly distraught or harmed by her father’s death. In fact, it’s unclear if and when she ever saw him.
No, True Grit is not a tale of revenge. In some sense, it’s barely a tale — if we take a tale to be a story with a clear narrative arc. True Grit moves — it is a story of a sort — but its movement is not only linear. The film more often moves sideways than it does forwards as we get a network of ever-shifting relations between Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf.
There is no good and evil, no good guy and bad guy. There are lives, people who have lived and continue to live, who are complex amalgamations of motive, desire, need, and affect. We see these people read each other, make sense of each other, make sense of themselves and their place in this world. There are twists and turns, pleats and folds, harmonies and collisions. Indeed, the movement of the film is perhaps more akin to the movement of a symphony than the movement of a story.
When we finally meet the presumed bad guys —Ned Pepper and his gang —, they don’t seem terribly different than our presumed good guys. They are all just a bunch of men — and one young woman —making their way with a certain fervor: with true grit. (There is one true bad guy, the murderer Tom Chaney, and he commands no respect from anyone.)
True Grit marks an interesting point in the Coen oeuvre (that is a gloriously ugly word, oeuvre, especially as its French which has so many exquisitely beautiful words). Their last few movies — No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man — are profoundly misanthropic films. True Grit is not. On the contrary, it is an eloquent testimony to the complexity of life and an homage to a particular breed of life and, more specifically, to a distinctly American breed of life.
And then there is the ending — pitch perfect, devastating, multivalent. The true grit of the American frontier has been domesticated, turned into kitsch, into the Wild West Show. And the fervor of Mattie, so fetching and impressive in a 14 year old, is less endearing on a middle-aged woman. Not that she’s not impressive — we see, we sense, her enormous strength, her true grit. But we see the damage it has left and, like her missing arm, we wonder if true grit itself has been amputated from the American body.
I see the ending of True Grit leading into the dark nihilistic America of No Country for Old Men. And I suddenly understand the Coen brothers oeuvre as an exploration, an excavation, of America performed through film genres — noir, Western, blockbuster spy, musical, screwball romance. America is not a just a story but a complex network of threads — from the icy white of Fargo to the day-glo of Lebowski’s LA; from the sitcom sheen of Burn After Reading’s Washington to the warm yet brooding yellows of O, Brother Where Art Thou?; from the pecularities of the Jewish-American experience in Barton Fink and A Serious Man to the Irish and Italian gangster experience of Miller’s Crossing; from the rustic, harsh beauty of True Grit to the ugly cruelty of No Country.
Between the Coens and Terence Malick, we get a vision of America that is never univocal but is grand, brutal, beautiful, complex, and ugly.