Hamlet. Carrie. The Wrath of Khan. Mean Girls. The Avengers. Some of the greatest works of literature slash film are revenge narratives—just like True Grit. For Mattie Ross, revenge is a matter of honor and personal responsibility. Avenging her father's death personally is, for her, the only legitimate course of action—and unlike some other heroes (coughHamletcough), she doesn't spend a lot of time agonizing over it. The real agony comes later, when she loses her left arm—but even then, there's no sign that she regrets her choices. A girl's got to do what a girl's got to do.
Mattie Ross's arm, Rooster Cogburn's missing eye, Lucky Ned Pepper's lip (shot by Rooster), and LaBoeuf's busted skull—True Grit has more injuries than the trauma ward at your local hospital. Add to that the novel's shoot-outs, pistol whippings, thrashings, finger-choppings and snake bites, and it adds up to one big mess of violence. But we get the sense that violence is the price of doing business—and it can even be funny. If it takes violence to track down Frank Ross's killer—well, then, it takes violence. After all, this is the Wild West. You don't walk into the Territory expecting Band-Aids and Neosporin, do you?
Murder sets True Grit in motion and murder closes it out. (Well, killing, at least—whether or not it's murder is up for debate.) Mattie Ross wants Tom Chaney dead, but the question is: will he die by the hangman's noose, or by her hand? If that's not enough moral ambiguity for you, there's always the question of the triple hanging: would be you Judge Parker, forcing yourself to watch a punishment you've assigned but don't approve of, because someone has to bear witness; or would you be in the crowd below, stoked to watch three men lose their lives? Tough questions.
You can't get much more American than the Wild West. For generations of people, the west has symbolized America: the frontier, the wide open prairie, the lack of government oversight or rule of law, the senseless genocide of Native Americans …okay, we'll stop, but you get our point. True Grit associates the quality of its title—you know, grit—with the West. And that sense of individual responsibility, go-get-em stick-to-it-ive-ness, and good old fashioned ingenuity is as American as apple pie. Of course, Portis is a child of the Civil Rights Era, so he also gets in some exploration of America's treatment of minority cultures. In our view, that just makes the book all the more American.
True Grit may have a female narrator, but Mattie doesn't seem to find women very interesting, have any female role models, or be very interested in following a typical female path. (The novel gets a big fat "F" on the Bechdel test.) In fact, the whole novel is about men. Even after her quest is over, she remains a tough, single businesswoman throughout her life. But Mattie doesn't seem to spend much time moaning about the limited opportunities women faced at the end of the nineteenth century (like the inability to vote). Instead, she's interested in learning about men: she observes them, listens to them, and deals with them. So we have to ask: why did Portis make her a girl, anyway?
There is a fine line between cops and robbers in True Grit. U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn isn't all that different from the men he hunts down and often kills. Oh, sure, he's robbed a bank and some government money, but that's not really stealing. Only stealing from individuals is real stealing, and he never does that. Being a marshal is just a way to pay the bills, and he leaves the job just as quickly as he came to it. There's no government in Indian Territory—and when there's no government, how do you know who's on the side of the law?
For Mattie, justice is simple: you do the crime, you do the time. (Or you hang.) She judges criminals harshly, and only looks past Rooster's criminal tendencies because he'll make sure her justice is served. But there's a problem. Mattie's situation may seem pretty straightforward—Chaney killed her dad; she wants him dead—but justice is rarely that simple. If everyone just went around killing people who'd wronged them, the nation would be effectively lawless. In fact, it'd be no better than Indian Territory: a bunch of criminals and might-as-well-be criminals running around waving guns at each other.
True Grit takes place at a time when there weren't laws prohibiting the use of drugs or alcohol in the U.S. Not so in 1923 when Mattie is actually writing her story, and we bet she's all about Prohibition. She's never liked alcohol, and Chaney even admits that the whole thing happened because he was drunk. But then she meets Rooster, who's a huge drunk, and Mattie just sort of accepts it as part of his essential Rooster-ness. Mattie plays it for comic effect, all Reno 911, but we do get a hint that drinking may keep Rooster from living the life he wants to leave. All we have to say is that we're glad Rooster takes a horse rather than a car—although he does carry a lot of guns.
Okay, true. Nobody's exactly going to church in True Grit, and they're not exactly spending a lot of time debating the theological implications of their actions. But, religion is an essential element of Mattie's life, and we think of her father's, too. Biblical quotes, discussions of different religions, and religious opinions are just part of her. One thing, though: Mattie's brand of religion seems to be more about the "eye for an eye" God of the Hebrew Bible than the "turn the other cheek" God of the Christian Bible. We're not experts, but we're pretty sure Jesus wouldn't approve of vigilante justice.