FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Subversive Conservatism of "True Grit"

by JOSHUA SPERBER

The Coen Brothers occupy a Hollywood niche that implies subversion while reinforcing conservatism. “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” and “No Country for Old Men” are morality tales in which a flawed ? but invariably handsome and charismatic ? protagonist trespasses upon a preternaturally obsessive villain who pursues the former for the remainder of the movie. The formula takes an off-kilter tone through the use of ostensibly Texan dialogue that is earthy, laconic, and melodiously articulate. Like most of their films, “True Grit” ? an adaptation of Charles Portis’s 1968 novel ? combines a putatively subversive ? more quirky ? form with conservative content.

Much of the film’s dialogue is taken directly from Portis’s book, and it is delivered as if the actors were reading it off the page, effectively reminding viewers that they are watching a tale, and making it all the more enjoyable for this paradoxical postmodern earnestness. The tale is absorbing, as long, patient shots of beautiful landscapes and attractive actors, combined with elegant scenes of taut violence, pace the plot. But the visual and thematic core of the quest for vengeance/coming of age story is its 14-year-old protagonist Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who is determined to restore honor to her murdered father by capturing his partner-turned-killer (Josh Brolin). Spiritedly joining the world of men ? she has contempt for her indecisive mother ? Mattie rejects the injustice of a system that pursues criminals based on the power of their victims. Unaware that she is young and female and thereby traditionally unsuited for her task, Mattie overcomes a variety of male adversaries who are charmed, confounded, outwitted, outtalked, and out-“gritted” by her. Valorization of the father is of course patriarchy 101 ? or just see politicians’ favorite biographical subjects ? and it is noteworthy how Mattie, vulnerable and beautiful, becomes “male” through avenging hers.

First, it is significant ? and surely a strike against realism, if any is intended ? that Mattie, while humored and patronized, is never explicitly sexually objectified. The only reference to her being physically desirable is made by the boyish and buffoonish Texas Ranger Labouf (an excellent Matt Damon) who merely notes that he could have kissed her while she was sleeping but decided, he protests too much, that she was too unattractive for his tastes. This coddling of headstrong-to-the-point-of-domineering Mattie (even her nemesis is strangely reluctant to kill her) brings to mind the far more reality-based and critical film “The Ballad of Little Jo,” which, based on a true story, depicts a woman who would rather disfigure herself and live as a man than endure the unrestrained brutality of the nineteenth-century west. That is, the Coens suggest a self-actualizing (but ultimately empty) freedom for anyone with “true grit,” although this grit is in fact supported by the chivalry, compassion, and heroism of paternalistic benefactors.

While critics such as Stanley Fish comment on the film’s supposedly meaningless and irrational violence, the film in fact portrays violence as being socially ? specifically racially ? structured. Among three men awaiting imminent hanging, only the Native American is deprived of saying his piece before the execution. Far less critically, Rooster (Bridges) gratuitously assaults two Choctaw children about Mattie’s age, earning a cheap and sadistic laugh from the audience.

Indeed, Mattie’s men don’t valorize her because she is a pretty, young girl per se, but because as a white, Bible-quoting young woman she is “civilization” glamorously and tenderly personified. Mattie buys and tames a black pony, taking it from a young Black boy and, with no further comment, christening the horse “Little Blackie.” Exemplifying a burgeoning capitalism and its rule of law ? which even rebels cow to — Mattie throws her weight around with money and by invoking contracts and ownership rights. After she overwhelms the horse trader by threatening to sue him, she buffaloes individualistic, self-sufficient Rooster by invoking her rights as his employer. Notwithstanding his claims to autonomy, she, not he, controls his labor, and Rooster participates in this disempowerment not because he is awed by her beauty and grit, but because her beauty disguises the fact that her grit is nothing more than the inexorable workings of a misanthropic machine.

I’ve read no review of the film that mentions Mattie’s conventional attractiveness or the tacit sexual tension underscoring her relationships. After (spoiler alert) killing Chaney (Brolin), Mattie immediately falls into a pit where she’s bitten by a snake. Not especially subtle, we are supposed to see that Mattie has lost her innocence. Increasingly paternalistic Rooster, however, sucks out the venom and brings her to safety ? killing “Little Blackie” along the way.

And while we are supposed to be moved when (more spoiler alert) Rooster saves Mattie’s life, his self-sacrifice in fact preserves the embodiment of a system that is destined to domesticate and degrade him ? as he indeed spends his later years as a carnival attraction. While Mattie’s adult incarnation is even more spiteful, sanctimonious, and priggish than her cuter, younger version, Rooster’s docility vis-?-vis this tyrant makes self-subordination cool. Who doesn’t want to be like Jeff Bridges?

JOSHUA SPERBER lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at jsperber4@yahoo.com

 

 

Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at jsperber4@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

April 26, 2017
Richard Moser
Empire Abroad, Empire At Home
Stan Cox
For Climate Justice, It’s the 33 Percent Who’ll Have to Pick Up the Tab
Paul Craig Roberts
The Looting Machine Called Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
The Dilemma for Intelligence Agencies
Christy Rodgers
Remaining Animal
Joseph Natoli
Facts, Opinions, Tweets, Words
Mel Gurtov
No Exit? The NY Times and North Korea
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Women on the Move: Can Three Women and a Truck Quell the Tide of Sexual Violence and Domestic Abuse?
Michael J. Sainato
Trump’s Wikileaks Flip-Flop
Manuel E. Yepe
North Korea’s Antidote to the US
Kim C. Domenico
‘Courting Failure:’ the Key to Resistance is Ending Animacide
Barbara Nimri Aziz
The Legacy of Lynne Stewart, the People’s Lawyer
Andrew Stewart
The People vs. Bernie Sanders
Daniel Warner
“Vive La France, Vive La République” vs. “God Bless America”
April 25, 2017
Russell Mokhiber
It’s Impossible to Support Single-Payer and Defend Obamacare
Nozomi Hayase
Prosecution of Assange is Persecution of Free Speech
Robert Fisk
The Madder Trump Gets, the More Seriously the World Takes Him
Giles Longley-Cook
Trump the Gardener
Bill Quigley
Major Challenges of New Orleans Charter Schools Exposed at NAACP Hearing
Jack Random
Little Fingers and Big Egos
Stanley L. Cohen
Dissent on the Lower East Side: the Post-Political Condition
Stephen Cooper
Conscientious Justice-Loving Alabamians, Speak Up!
Michael J. Sainato
Did the NRA Play a Role in the Forcing the Resignation of Surgeon General?
David Swanson
The F-35 and the Incinerating Ski Slope
Binoy Kampmark
Mike Pence in Oz
Peter Paul Catterall
Green Nationalism? How the Far Right Could Learn to Love the Environment
George Wuerthner
Range Riders: Making Tom Sawyer Proud
Clancy Sigal
It’s the Pits: the Miner’s Blues
Robert K. Tan
Abe is Taking Japan Back to the Bad Old Fascism
April 24, 2017
Mike Whitney
Is Mad Dog Planning to Invade East Syria?    
John Steppling
Puritan Jackals
Robert Hunziker
America’s Tale of Two Cities, Redux
David Jaffe
The Republican Party and the ‘Lunatic Right’
John Davis
No Tomorrow or Fashion-Forward
Patrick Cockburn
Treating Mental Health Patients as Criminals
Jack Dresser
An Accelerating Palestine Rights Movement Faces Uncertain Direction
George Wuerthner
Diet for a Warming Planet
Lawrence Wittner
Why Is There So Little Popular Protest Against Today’s Threats of Nuclear War?
Colin Todhunter
From Earth Day to the Monsanto Tribunal, Capitalism on Trial
Paul Bentley
Teacher’s Out in Front
Franklin Lamb
A Post-Christian Middle East With or Without ISIS?
Kevin Martin
We Just Paid our Taxes — are They Making the U.S. and the World Safer?
Erik Mears
Education Reformers Lowered Teachers’ Salaries, While Promising to Raise Them
Binoy Kampmark
Fleeing the Ratpac: James Packer, Gambling and Hollywood
Weekend Edition
April 21, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Diana Johnstone
The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail