True Grit (2010) is the Coen brothers’ adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel of the same name, which tells the story of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a stubbornly moral and uncompromising girl who, in the year 1880, enlists the help of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) to find and hang Tom Chaney, the man who murdered Mattie’s father. I thought the film was excellent. The dialogue was witty. The acting was near-flawless. The set designs were stunning. And so I watched with both captivation and dread, hoping that no hidden shoe was poised to drop.
But drop it did, at the very end of the film. For reasons I won’t get into here, Mattie’s character was both unique and believable … believable, surely, because she was unique. But alas! Back to the shoe. True Grit concludes with a retrospective narrator, an older Mattie who recounts the adventure she had when she was fourteen. At the end of the film, the middle-aged Mattie discovers that U.S. Marshal Cogburn had recently died, and she decides to bury him in her family plot. In the film’s final scene, Mattie stands before Cogburn’s grave and says in a voice-over: “It is true I have not married; I never had time to fool with it.” She then says a few more lines, and the film ends.
Films with female leads sometimes end this way. Did she get married or not? Did she have babies or not? The framing makes it clear that the real question is: Does she have a happy ending or no? Usually, this ending is trite and sentimental, but sometimes it isn’t. If it makes sense with a particular character, fine. I’m reminded of Cold Mountain, in which the final scene is a flash-forward to Nicole Kidman with her red-headed little girl. In this case, the ending made sense. Kidman’s specific character desired a child and the eternal embodiment (as her character would have viewed things) of her deceased lover.
But for Mattie, this ending is abrupt, awkward, and out of nowhere. The movie was about fourteen-year-old Mattie. Nothing she said or did communicated to the viewers her feelings about having children. Yet at the film’s end, she’s unexpectedly shoved into the “cold women don’t want husbands or children” stereotype. What were they thinking?
Here, the plot thickens. In the novel True Grit, Mattie is indeed a spinster. Yet in the 1969 film adaptation (starring John Wayne), the filmmakers altered the ending. In this version, U.S. Marshal Cogburn’s character visits the young Mattie soon after their adventures together have come to an end. Mattie is still young; there is no flash-forward. Mattie shows Cogburn her family’s graveplot and suggests that since Cogburn doesn’t have a family, he can be buried here one day. The end.
Why the change? It’s impossible to know, but what’s clear is the male filmmakers intentionally evaded the fact that Mattie became a spinster. In the Coen brothers version, this fact is left in, yet clumsily executed.
Blogger Kelli Marshall also disliked the Coen brothers’ ending, and apparently she hit a nerve, because her post on this topic unleashed such a flurry of responses that she wrote a follow-up and was confronted on Twitter by film critics Matthew Seitz and Craig Simpson, both of whom predictably argue that Mattie’s character is the admirable antithesis to the stereotypically feminine character. Simpson prosaically believes that Mattie’s conclusion should be venerated because it is the opposite of the “Woman Has Kids! Yay!” ending, apparently not realizing that the precise opposite of a trope is also a trope.
My point is thus: The fact of Mattie being or not being a “spinster” is not important. What’s important is that her spinsterhood be portrayed in a way that is organic to her character. In the novel True Grit, I suspect that it was. Yet the Coen brothers did not take the time to thoughtfully handle this aspect of her character, and their failure stuck out like a sore thumb. The ending was truly awful: the acting seemed off and the rhythm of the plot shifted from harmonious to discordant.
As one commenter to Kelli’s post wrote, “I agree that the ending is deeply disappointing. I don’t care that she’s maimed, single, and alone. I care that she has no joy. No anima. No personality. The tone is downright wrong. I find the two characters completely distinct (young Mattie v. old Mattie), bearing no relation to the other.”
The lesson? Don’t skimp on the development of female characters just because the complexities are difficult to represent. We’re going to notice. But I truly believe the filmmakers might not have.
Related reading: Kelli Marshall’s original post on True Grit’s ending , Kelli’s follow-up post
Previously on Bringing Up Baby: Up All Night is Boring But Christina Applegat is Soooo Cool!, Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Care in TVLand