Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies and the Mind

'True Grit' as a (Strangely) Therapeutic Movie

The Coen Brothers upend expectations for 'coming of age' films

Posted Jul 25, 2016

True Grit movie poster
Source: True Grit movie poster

The idea that movies can be therapeutic runs throughout the “Movies and the Mind” blog. The healing (or at least coping) potential in recent Oscar nominated movies such as Room, Whiplash or even The Martian is obvious, but it can be found in unlikely places as well including the Coen Brothers gritty yet ironic remake of True Grit (also nominated for a Best Picture in 2010). [This article is adapted from a presentation I recently gave at the conference of the Central States Communication Association along with my colleagues, Bill Bettler, Don Carrell and Jeff Brautigam.]

True Grit is told as a recollection narrated in flashback by a 40-year-old woman, Mattie Ross, about a critical event from her early adolescence. Her age of 14 during the main action of the film is definitely not an accident. Her identity (i.e., her sense of “self” with a consistent set of memories, values and beliefs) should, theoretically, be in its early stages of development. The adult narrator is trying to make a case for how the events of tracking and avenging her father’s killer, with her “employee” and mentor Rooster Cogburn at her side, made her into the person she is today. In this way, it is a “coming of age” film.

True Grit is a very unusual coming of age film however. Most stories in this genre emphasize the protagonist’s shift from someone who is flawed and immature to someone who develops features that serve them well into adulthood. The drama comes from contrasting the fully formed person to the unripe version (often the point of comic exaggeration). This dynamic does not exist in True Grit. We never see Mattie Ross change. Beyond her youthful appearance, she arrives fully formed—determined, focused and calculating, with a strong sense of justice and confidence in her own abilities. (I love the scene where she ruthlessly barters over her father’s horses with the outmatched stable owner.) In the epilogue of the film, we are introduced to an adult Mattie—now a successful family business woman—and she appears to possess all these same characteristics.

One of the most striking things about the film is how all the characters speak in an articulate, overly precise, contraction-less manner that is both puzzling and humorous (e.g., Rooster evaluates a dead body and then pointedly declares: “I do not know this man.”).  Such language is unexpected from 14-year-old girls, bounty hunters and outlaws. We can interpret these unlikely speech patterns as an indication that everything in this tale, including the dialogue, is being filtered through the recollection of a proper, educated middle-aged woman for whom that kind language makes perfect sense. The viewer never sees young Mattie learn to speak this way; she is gifted immediately with her verbal capacity because it is filtered through the woman narrating the tale. What Mattie might have been like before accompanying Rooster into the Choctaw nation to hunt a band of outlaws is unspoken and therefore impossible to judge.

One could argue that the lack of growth we see in adolescent Mattie’s character is problematic in the potential of True Grit to be used therapeutically. It lacks humility on the part of the narrator and does not allow the audience to draw a connection between what Mattie was and what she became. It is a story that emphasizes agency and personal empowerment—Mattie is a force to be reckoned with when she barters; when she bullies Rooster; and when she shoots the no-good Tom Chaney. She admits no flaws. The audience can presume that this forcefulness led to her success in later life when she took over her families’ business. But how one might develop these characteristics is not revealed because of the unwavering perspective that the adult Mattie’s recollections cast over the film.

Further reflection however suggests that the moment of transformation we expect from coming of age films does not come when we expect it (in the behavior of the adolescent protagonist). Instead, the character change only comes at the end of the film when the middle-aged Mattie receives a request from Rooster to visit him at a travelling “wild west show” he now performs in. This event provokes life reflections in a woman not prone to reflection. Uncharacteristically sentimental for her, she accepts Rooster’s invitation, and then decides to bury him on her family’s land when she arrives just after he has passed away. For Mattie, this is a touching move toward connection and communion. In a life dedicated to righteous productivity, we see Mattie in the end acknowledge the importance that Rooster had on her life. She takes him, or at least his memory, into her heart and symbolically into her family.