Friday, January 21, 2011

Grit in the Eyes

[Note: Spoilers afoot!] Some critics of the 2010 remake of True Grit seem curiously united on two things -- their aversion to a particular scene  together with a inclination to distort its significance, and an unfortunate compulsion to mention the 1969 version in which the character John Wayne played in all his movies* was named Rooster Cogburn. Louis Proyect expresses the former:
... [T]here is one scene that really got me riled up.

Cogburn and Mattie, the fourteen year old played by Hailee Steinfeld, come upon a meager looking farmhouse in Chocktaw Territory that is home to Indians, including a couple of children sitting on the porch. As he enters the house to find out if the inhabitants have any knowledge of the whereabouts of Tom Chaney, he kicks the children on his way up the stairs. For good measure, he kicks them on the way out. What point were the Coens trying to make, that Cogburn was not a nice guy? I think that was pretty well established from the outset. Audiences would probably get a chuckle out of this since it is part and parcel of the sadism that pervades Coen movies. [emphasis mine] 
David Denby portrays the Indian-kicking as a dark joke that illuminates the film's disjointed morality:
The joke—the Coens' touch of sardonic black humor—is that, La Boeuf's scruples aside, the proper talk merely decorates the savage moral incoherence of the West. Here, if you want someone punished, you shoot him; if an Indian child is sitting anywhere in the vicinity, you kick him out of the way. The arbitrary casualness of the brutality is the movie's main interest. [emphasis mine]
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cranks the same criticism up to eleven:
the bible verse at the beginning of True Grit seems like the first in a series of elements that could only be called "moral bric-a-brac"—acknowledgements of morality within the space of a film that doesn't really admit any concern for moral issues and which takes its ugliness at face value. Jeff Bridges, booting Indian kids off a porch, is every bit as spiteful as Eastwood in Gran Torino, yet there's nothing in True Grit to balance or counteract his spite; this is either a moral flaw or the entire agenda (it'd be a stretch to call it a "point") of the film. [emphasis mine]
The above might be interesting claims if they weren't so crashingly wrong. Cogburn's rough treatment of the Indian children -- Indian children not because he's casting around for hate crimes to commit but because his search has taken him into Choctaw territory -- comes immediately after we see the children cruelly mistreating a mule tied to the same porch from which Cogburn kicks them.

The critics cited above are right about one thing -- the scene does illuminate the film's wider moral vision, but wrong in that the vision is far removed from characterizations like "sadism that pervades," "savage moral incoherence," and "ugliness at face value." Cogburn is drawn to the defense of the smaller and weaker as he perceives them. His single functioning eye hints that his perceptions are not entirely trustworthy, but his moral sites are constantly even if not perfectly trained on bullies.

We see his championing of underdogs in his response to the mule and the children; we see it again when he almost shoots LaBeuf for spanking Hailee; again when he accepts evasions, lies, and japes from a suspect only to shoot him dead the moment he strikes his younger, more shaken associate; yet again when he forgets his disputes with LaBeuf and, seeing him hopelessly outnumbered, shoots nearly all of his attackers; and not least, we see it in his willingness to take up Hailee's mission to bring justice to the man who killed her father.

Maybe most shockingly, we see it in Cogburn's choice to ride a horse, and nearly himself, to death in order to deliver Hailee to the care she needs for a rattlesnake bite. Here, he reveals that he is no animal welfare purist; he is, instead, weighing out the balance of strong and weak as best he can, and favoring the weak even at the risk of his own life.

This is an unsparing portrait of the world to which Hailee, LaBeuf, and Cogburn were born, one ruled by an "eye for an eye" ethic. Cogburn begins the film having already lost an eye, and that last eye is fixed in a discernible line for as long as he has it.

* I am not a fan of John Wayne's work.

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