Tuesday, January 09, 2018

"True Grit", Melodrama, and Landscapes

Since seeing True Grit again two nights ago, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the film. As I was laying awake, sometime around 2 AM, and running through some of the film's images that stuck in my mind, that where the Coens take True Grit from being an exceptionally well-made Western and into the realm of something else entirely occurs toward the end of the film.

I suppose I should issue a "spoiler warning" here before proceeding, for anyone who has not yet seen the film. If you haven't, I highly recommend doing so at the earliest opportunity.

The pivotal moment for me occurs during what it supposed to be the dramatic climax of the story we think we have been watching up to this point, when Mattie Ross finally gets the drop on Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father, and shoots him in the chest, sending him backward over the edge of a cliff. It mirrors a scene earlier in the film during her first encounter with Chaney, when they spot eachother while getting water from a stream and Mattie wounds him with one shot before running out of bullets.

After Mattie blasts Tom off the side of the cliff, she is propelled backward by the force of the gun, down a hole in the mountainside, where she gets tangled up on a vine that breaks her fall, but also traps her down in the hole next to a nest of snakes, one of which bites her on the hand.

All of this seems quite melodramatic at first glance, a fast-and-furious race of events, one might even say conveniences, to place Mattie in ever-greater danger at the last minute and heighten the suspense. But what follows is essential to understanding the film. Mattie's rescue by Rooster Cogburn is central to the film. Cogburn descends into the pit, frees her from the vine, and cuts her hand with knife to suck the poison out of the snake bite. From there, it's a race against time to get Mattie to a doctor before the poison spreads further.

Their ride takes them across the landscape at a furious speed, riding first across a spectacular sunset, and then under a starry night sky that appears almost stylized in its sheer grandeur. The Coens have always had an eye for landscapes, from the bleak frozen terrain of Fargo to the sprawling rural backwoods of O Brother Where Art Thou, and many others. The vast wilderness of True Grit is the environment in which the Coens place their characters to undergo this transformative experience. It is at once beautiful and dangerous.

Under that starry night sky, Mattie's pony collapses in exhaustion, and she watches in pain as Rooster puts it out of its misery with a gunshot to the head. Rooster then carries Mattie in his arms the rest of the journey. This is the moment of Mattie's transition into adulthood, and Rooster's spiritual redemption, pushing himself to ever-greater physical and emotional limits to save the life of another person.

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