True Grit

Well, the Denny’s garden burger has gone the way of all flesh. Betty and the husband person dropped in there, nostalgically, after a movie the other night; but although the waiter remembered the old menu, it was club sandwiches or nothing on the vegetable front.

Still, though. The movie was this one:

And a fine job it is too. It’s the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen-year-old girl determined to bring her father’s killer to justice. The killer’s identity is not in question, but the authorities seem to operate on a very freelance and as-desired basis; Mattie selects a trigger-happy marshal (Jeff Bridges) as the pursuer, and strikes a deal with her father’s money. She insists on going along — after all, she’s the one with the hundred dollars — and the pair are joined by a hapless Texas ranger (Matt Damon), who has been ineffectually searching for the same man for some time, and who expects a large reward.

The film is beautifully and unhurriedly paced, brilliantly cast (Matt Damon is genuinely horrible for the first half hour, and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie is an unsettling combination of ferociously untamed eyebrows and blankly literal determination), and set in the spacious forests and deserts of Fort Smith. There plot twists are simple and straightforward; bit parts, though they stray easily into the semi-ridiculous (like a travelling medical man dressed in an entire bearskin) somehow don’t pull the story too far into crude hick humour. Even the dialogue, excessively stylised and formal, doesn’t become cutesy. What could easily be a cheap trick, a forgettable kid-with-gun caper, manages — effortlessly, at that — to hold its own.

The true centre of the film, though, is in the tension between Mattie’s unshakeable faith in “grit” — the kind of strength of character that leads her marshal to lose count of the suspects he has taken on himself to shoot — and the haunting simplicity of the score that accompanies nearly all of the story’s significant moments. Even before the adult Mattie opens the film by declaring, in retrospect, that “there is nothing free, except the grace of God”, the musical phrase is a line from the hymn “Leaning on the everlasting arms”. It is repeated in every crisis, before every action, whether reaching for a gun, or standing outnumbered among a group of desperate fugitives. Safe and secure from all alarms…

There is crime and pursuit here, but no mystery; Mattie’s faith can admit no defeat. The film, like her mission, moves steadfastly on. Its climax is shocking on paper, but consummately logical and satisfying in the flesh. What have I to dread?, Mattie’s unperturbed countenance seems to say. What have I to fear? And her tumultuous story ends in peace, as she and her guardian hymn together declare that true grit is born of a blessed assurance, and of nothing else, and most certainly not the other way around.