Well, not really women, since True Grit stars a fourteen-year-old girl with John Wayne in his only Academy-Award-winning role. He plays Rooster Cogburn, a name that captures his arrogance and stubbornness. Wayne fulfills our expectations as a bandit-chasing U.S. Marshal but surprises us with his soft side. He calls Mattie (Kim Darby) “little sister”. He shifts between a dissolute uncle, a protective older brother, and an abashed puppy when she calls him out for his rugged lifestyle. They partner, or rather, she hires him to find her father’s murderer because she hears he’s a “man who has true grit.” This story of broken relationships and non-traditional families proves more than a Western shoot-out and actually rewards close reading.
The film starts with the devolution of domestic order. When farmhand Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) goes off with Mattie’s father to trade horses, she remarks that he “should have stayed home and worked the farm.” Because he leaves and drunkenly kills her father instead, little Mattie, the house’s bookkeeper, goes off to seek justice. Her obsession with contracts and fairness links her to Cogburn, whom we learned has been divorced and left by his wife. Mattie is a stickler about agreements, haggling with the horse tradesman who gave her father geldings when he paid for studs and demanding that Cogburn be faithful to her contract to catch Chaney alive because she gave him a down payment of $25.
Mattie portrays a militant Justice League by condemning smoking and drinking (“I will not put a thief in my mouth to steal away my brains”) and also by articulating every consonant and refusing to contract her words. Cogburn is less strict with his manners but equally avid in his drive to punish the criminal. He has a personal rivalry with the leader of the band Chaney has joined, Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). This rooster wants to get in a cock fight.
As Mattie and her adopted father/rash uncle head out, a Texan joins them, La Boeuf (Glen Campbell). His actions show that his name is French for “pompous meathead.” After he first tries to flirt with Mattie and later whips her like a child, she responds “the one would be as unpleasant as the other.” After the men try unsuccessfully to throw her off their trail, she forges her own way across the river, keeping up with the boys to supervise them and remind them that their end is justice. She acts more as a mother than a timid, naive girl, censuring the boys, pitying those they kill, and urging them onward with the mission.
An interesting scene unfolds when the traveling trio enters the Indian reservation and the cabin of two horse thieves who are in league with Ned’s band. We see the devolution of trust in a band of robbers. One wants to divulge the truth, and the other betrays him but dies anyway. We start to admire the three amigos by contrast to the thieves because some contractual loyalty binds Mattie’s crew.
Then we begin to resent the Texan. Lying in wait for the bandits, La Boeuf recklessly shoots and gives away their position. They follow Ned’s gang and as Mattie is going down to the water to wash herself (cleanliness is next to godliness), she confronts her father’s murderer. They kidnap her, and then the scene cuts back to Cogburn charging four of Ned’s band with a pistol in one hand, a rifle in the other, and the reins in his teeth. As he is caught under his horse facing imminent destruction, La Boeuf snipes Ned, regaining our respect. His marksmanship outweighs his irksomeness.
The movie begins and ends with death, not in a glorious but in a mournful way. In the final scene, Mattie shows Cogburn the family plot of land where she intends to be buried. She tells her uncle-of-sorts that he can be buried next to her since he has no family of his own. This stern girl and her reckless partner meet in the middle at a sort of tenderness. Thus it is not shooting and stabbing that resolves the plot but rather loyalty and keeping one’s word. They stayed faithful to their agreement and found commonality where it seemed impossible. They even loved the unlovable La Boeuf along the way.