When I walked in the theatre to see True Grit last weekend I was expecting to see a Western. And given how many groups of men were in the audience, so did they. Little did they know, we were about to see one of the smartest, funniest, most tightly plotted, girl-driven young adult stories I’ve seen/read in a long time.
I’ve never been a big fan of Westerns as a genre, but I do vaguely remember seeing the 1969 version of True Grit on TV, (probably because I had a now-embarrassing crush on Glen Campbell). And I barely remembered that the story was about a young girl.
When the book was first published, I understand it was put out by as a “book for young readers”, and having just seen the new Coen brothers movie (twice), which supposedly follows the original book more closely, I understand that. And really want to read the book. It is a YA story.
I did a (tiny) bit of research before composing this post, and now understand that the original film didn’t stick to the material in the novel as well as the Coen brothers did. Plus, in the new version, the actress who plays fourteen-year-old Mattie was just thirteen during filming. The actress in the original was twenty-one. And that says a lot in itself. I was in my early teens when I saw the original on TV and likely could easily see through the adult pretending to be fourteen.
The old version also took out a lot of the comic elements and made it more about Rooster and LeBoeuf and Chaney — more of a traditional western. I think the Coen’s managed to marry the two genres. Or rather make a YA with cross-over appeal, rather than a western.
One of the first things that struck me after seeing this movie was what an excellent lesson in POV it is. Perhaps it was just because I’m preparing to teach a POV workshop this weekend and thinking a lot about the topic, but I couldn’t help but notice that here’s not one scene in this movie that’s not from Mattie’s POV. Even the scenes that aren’t really about her, or that she’s not directly part of, we only see through her eyes… Entirely seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old girl. How could that not be a YA?
The trailer makes it seem like an adult western, and I suppose that was smart on the studio/distributor’s part, but how little Mattie is in this trailer is misleading. As I said above, she is in every scene in the movie, even if she’s just observing a few times. Also, the trailer makes her look like a victim. They skip the important part of that scene in the river. The part where she’s incredibly brave.
A good ten or fifteen minutes of the movie goes by before we ever see (or hear) Rooster. And the first time we hear Rooster, she’s tracked him down to an outhouse. And the Coen’s don’t cheat and show Jeff Bridges’s face, or go for the potential funny moment of seeing him inside the outhouse with his pants down. Or without his pants down and simply hiding from the girl. No. We’re left to imagine what he’s doing and just see her banging on the door, saying things like, “you’ve been about your business for an awful long time, Marshall” and we only see the scene from her side. Similarly, when Rooster is testifying in a court case a few scenes later, (the first time we see his character), we don’t see or hear any part of the trial until she walks in the room. Another example is when someone approaches Rooster and Mattie in the forest, when she’s high up in a tree, we don’t hear the conversation between Rooster and the man, until she’s down out of the tree and within hearing distance. Anyone who wants to understand POV should watch this movie.
Even more, anyone who wants an example of an active, decisive, perfectly motivated protagonist should see this movie. Yes, Jeff Bridges is getting a lot of attention for his performance and he was excellent. Yes, Matt Damon is HILARIOUS as the bombastic braggart LeBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef” in this movie — which I found hilarious in itself). Yes, Brolin is astoundingly good as Chaney and Barry Pepper is so great in the role of Ned Pepper, I can’t even imagine that Robert Duvall did it better in 1969. But the real star of this film is its protagonist, Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld. She never misses a beat.
Mostly, I love that this is a story about a brave young girl in grown up and dangerous situations, but instead of being overwhelmed, she holds her own and doesn’t need to rely on the adults for everything. Yes, it’s true that she does need the adults. She couldn’t have gone after Chaney on her own. But she’s smart enough to know this and smart enough not to let the men take advantage of her, and even smart enough to push for her own way even when they aren’t really trying to take advantage — but thinking that they know what’s good for her better than she does. This girl doesn’t take cr%p from anyone. I particularly loved the scenes of her haggling near the beginning and how much she knows about law and how incredibly well-educated and articulate she is. Her word choices cracked me up so many times.
I think she’s one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen in a long time who didn’t have unrealistic skills or superpowers. And she’s fourteen!
I even think my twelve year old niece should see this movie. I actually went the second time mostly to remind myself of the content because I’d already told my sister that she should take my niece to see it and started to question my recommendation. Yes, men get shot. Men get hung. It is a western. And there is one scene that’s pretty gruesome, but it’s not gratuitous and (like everything) it’s shown through Mattie’s eyes, and we feel the horror of it with her. (And compared to the violence in many PG-13 movies, it’s really not that bad.)
YA is taking over the entertainment world right now — it’s even claimed the gritty western.