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A Requiem for the Horses in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit

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A horse is a horse is a horse is a horse, except in a Western, in which a horse is a horse while also often embodying something deeply metaphorical. Wildness. Freedom. Beauty. Livelihood. Domestication. Friendship. Innocence. Anyway, I watch Westerns worried for the horses. The job of the horse in a Western is to be both ordinary and special—ubiquitous vehicles as much as they are close companions. Sometimes they are a simple ride out of town. Sometimes they are the cowboy’s only friend in the world.

In the Western, no figure is more vulnerable than the horse, particularly because eliminating the horse both incapacitates and exposes the cowboy, who is usually the real target. It means a lot when a horse dies in a Western—and it’s always startling to watch. There’s usually a shriek, and a patter of horseshoes. And it’s jarring to see such a giant, muscular, balanced creature as a horse awkwardly tumble down. Horse deaths usually mark two things: that its rider has lost a critical tool for survival, as well as the tragedy that a creature so statuesque and powerful has been destroyed by petty human interference.

True Grit, the 2010 Coen Brothers film, has a slightly different attitude towards its horses, but this is because it has a slightly different attitude towards everyone, especially its cowboys. It is a bleak, cynical, nihilistic film, about a grim journey. But it doesn’t start out this way, entirely. Its journey begins slightly hopefully, with a girl picking out the horse she will ride on the quest. She chooses a little one with a lot of spunk who seems a lot like her.

* * *

Mattie Ross, the heroine of the True Grit, is tough. We learn this from her first scene, in which she, a fourteen-year-old girl with braided pigtails, arrives in a small Western town to retrieve the body of her murdered father. She ends up firmly negotiating with the undertaker about the price, declaring ultimately that his terms are acceptable if he allows her to sleep in his mortuary, among the bodies, as she will have no more money left to pay for lodgings. Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld, in an Oscar-nominated performance) spends a significant portion of the film’s first act simply negotiating with adults far less articulate or self-possessed than she is—completing, among many other tasks, the hire of a United States Marshal to hunt down and take into custody the man who killed her father. Then, she orchestrates of the re-sale of several horses and ponies in order to pay the Marshal and supply herself with provisions to accompany him on the journey. She is, may remind you, only fourteen.

The Marshal is a crotchety, wobbly older man named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and joining their party to catch her father’s murderer is a patronizing Texas Ranger known as LeBoeuf (Matt Damon). Since Mattie needs a horse for this journey, she buys back one of the ponies she had just sold. She picks him out herself—a small, sleek, dark brown gelding she names Little Blackie. Like her, he is a dark horse (the darkest one in the barn). When sees him and strokes his face, she smiles for the first time. It is one of the rare times she smiles in the entire film.


True Grit adapts Charles Portis’ grim 1968 novel, bypassing the slushy 1978 adaptation which starred a late-career John Wayne as Rooster. Formally, True Grit is a Western, so of course horses are everywhere. But the horses in True Grit seem, for a while, to be essential to the film’s construction of a moral hierarchy—represented as more than embellishments to the aura and technique of the cowboy, as beacons of simplicity and integrity to an otherwise cold and chaotic world order. They are vessels of symbolic meaning. Until they’re not.

The horses in True Grit emblematize the existential push-and-pull that defines the film as a whole. Most of the time, its world is pointless and random and its characters accept that. Other times, they fight to push back against this, to claim meaning, identity, and feeling. Sometimes these persevering attempts seem to have triumphed. But they don’t, ultimately.

Horses are not excepted from meeting tragic or cruel fates—many horses die, and in as sad and even impersonal manners as their riders. To the wild west of True Grit, everyone is an animal. This isn’t to say that there is some sort of hyperbolic animalization of human traits, but that this place is an unsentimental, unfeeling world. Death, of a person, of a horse, is just another sunset.

True Grit plays with this by spurring an urge, on the part of the audience to try and locate some kind of emotional thematic center. It seems so easy, for a while, to anthromorphize its animals, and to zoomorphize its humans. Needless to say, the most analytically-tempting thing in this whole film is that our sloppy Marshal’s name is “Rooster,” and that he he lives in the backroom of a grocery store, sleeping on a sinking cot amid coils of sausages and dried chickens hanging on meat hooks. Is he a creature who discovers his humanity in the journey? That’s too simple.

Indeed, the movie’s setting resists this at every turn, which is made even more difficult because it gives us an underdog as a protagonist: Mattie. We want her to find fulfillment on her quest, and to realize a father figure. We want her pluckiness and precociousness to prevail. We want her to forge a beautiful connection with her horse, who is for a while, the only creature who might believe in her. But True Grit is about the uselessness, and even dangers, of such symbolic attribution and meaning-making.

There is no such thing as a human-like animal. In True Grit, giving an animal human qualities (or even worse, giving a human, human qualities) only causes pain and hinders survival. Emotions and sensations such as nostalgia and love, and abilities to perceive complex qualities such as pathos, are endlessly destructive.

* * *

From the moment she begins to speak, Mattie is represented as a formidable force in an environment in which she would otherwise be greatly ignored. She holds her own in several deals and conversations, but it is when she conducts the re-sale of the ponies that she demonstrates her tremendous intelligence, economic acumen, and ability to defend herself against a peculiar variety of predator. The man with whom she negotiates, Colonel Stonehill, does not directly cheat her, but also does not, for a long time, cooperate with her—and thus, he joins the legions of adults in this film who do Mattie wrong. Mattie, however, enters his shop and pushes him to make a deal, in the first place, calmly and brightly arguing with him until she gets her way. She confuses and intimidates him, wearing down until he gives in. Her triumphs mean something to us, and they mean all the more when her calculations and pluck lead her to an emotional connection. Enter the horse.

Mattie walks into Colonel Stonehill’s barn to pick her new pony, and settles on a sweet looking, dark-brown horse who begins to buck, wildly when she rides him. Instead of being nervous, though, on the rearing and bucking animal, she grins, again, calmly sitting each buck and instead encouraging the pony, gleefully naming him as she does so, and asking the stableboy what he likes to eat for treats. Both Mattie and Little Blackie dislike being taken for a ride, so to speak, but Blackie calms down, presumably because she does not kick him with spurs or smack his flank with a crop, and instead encourages his kind of behavior. Mattie has the same spunkiness and stubbornness—but, as reflected in the horse, it seems that her personality will only seem unpleasant or disagreeable to those who do not know how to handle her.

For a while, the film encourages this overlap, of girl and horse, featuring their the bravery and spunk of Mattie and Little Blackie as collaborative. A few scenes later, when they saddle up to chase Rooster and LeBoeuf (who have left without her), Mattie and Little Blackie have to race all the way to the river. They are stopped by the man who operates the ramshackle wooden ferry they would need in order to cross, and the ferryman grips Little Blackie’s bridle to try to lead them back to town (at Rooster’s request), Mattie grabs an apple (Little Blackie’s treat of choice), hurls it at the back of the head of the man leading them away, and, when he lets go of the bridle, yanks on the reins. She and Little Blackie gallop towards the river, and, as she loudly encourages him, he jumps in without any resistance.

They swim, together, through the somewhat rapid current, and Mattie shimmies up the horse’s back as he pulls himself out of the water, up the bank. They climb simultaneously, and they are both wet—and when Rooster Cogburn finally closes his gaping mouth, it is to remark, “that is quite a horse.” But he might as well be praising her, too.

But rather than acknowledging that Mattie has proven herself worthy to accompany Rooster and LeBoeuf, LeBoeuf drags Mattie out of her saddle to beat her for what her perceives as her insolence—hitting, and eventually whipping her with a stick, which, in length appears to resemble, slightly, a riding crop. LeBoeuf views Mattie competitively and insecurely, understanding her headstrong and tough personality as a personal insult to him. Not only does his method of punishing her, with the stick, unite Mattie to a horse, once more, but it also illuminates that LeBoeuf does not value Mattie for what separates her from all of the other humans in the film—her doggedness, spirit, and unrelenting determination. LeBoeuf, an idiot and a bully, represents human faculties gone wrong, and for a while the film suggests he will pay for this, while Mattie will triumph. But this doesn’t happen.

The posse—Rooster, LeBoeuf, and Mattie—are all revealed to care about horses. It’s the only thing that unites them. LeBoeuf, who rides a strawberry appaloosa, loudly trumpets the abilities of his steed. And Rooster goes out of his way to save one. On the porch of a cabin that they pass, two young boys are torturing a scared donkey. Rooster, disgusted, cuts the donkey free, allowing it to run away, free, before physically kicking the boys off the porch.

There is so much human-animal empathy, and the perpetual suggestion of a kind of goodness inherent in the animal. But all of this proves inconsequential when Mattie’s life is in danger. While killing Tom Cheney towards the end of the film, the recoil of the rifle she fires springs her back into a hole, at the bottom of which there is a defensive snake, who attacks her. Rooster, determined to get her to a doctor, grabs Mattie, hoists her up onto Little Blackie’s back, with him, and charges forward. They ride from the late afternoon deep into the night, and the little horse, wheezing but running furiously (almost as if he understands what is at stake) takes them almost as far as they need. He begins to make pained, noises, and Mattie begins to cry, and beg Rooster not to work her horse so hard. Rooster refuses, and kicks Little Blackie with his spurs, and the horse bolts forward, even more. This boost, however, cannot keep him going for long, and he collapses.

If Little Blackie and Mattie’s life forces had been connected, before, their concurrent proximity to death unites them even more. They are both sweating, crying out, breathing hard, close to death. The only difference between Little Blackie and Mattie, here, though, is that Little Blackie is expending his own life to save Mattie’s. The noblest human trait of self-sacrifice (which Mattie has already exhibited by attempting to track down her father’s murderer), is reproduced, here, in the horse, uniting them further. The bond between Mattie and Little Blackie, emerges due to similarities that they each recognize immediately, but their closeness and similarities come from the time they spend together; they already have similar personalities, but their identities eventually start to blend.

Except of course that this isn’t Little Blackie’s choice. He’s effectively beaten to run until he cannot run anymore: he is ultimately, literally, transportation required ensure Mattie’s survival. When Little Blackie has collapsed, and is dying on the grass, as much as Mattie begs and screams for him not to, Rooster grabs his pistol and euthanizes the broken pony, out of compassion, maybe, but also signaling that the horse’s usefulness has ceased.

Rooster, then, replaces the horse, grabbing Mattie in his arms, and running with her, to shelter. In this willingness to expend, or sacrifice himself, he acts just as nobly and pure as the horse for which he has taken over responsibility of carrying Mattie to safety. Much like Little Blackie, though, he cannot run while carrying Mattie, and soon he has sunk down into the grass on his knees. He can see a cabin up ahead, though, and he raises his pistol and shoots until a light turns on and someone comes outside. The screen fades to black, here, and resumes with Mattie’s narration when she is thirty-nine years old. She describes, in a voiceover, that when she woke up, having been healed after her ordeal, Rooster was gone. The last memory she has had of him, is he, too, collapsing in the dark grass on the night he carried her—and, therefore, both he and Blackie die for her, together, unceremoniously, sadly. Though humans prize human life above animal life (as evidenced in Rooster working and then shooting Little Blackie to save Mattie), there is ultimately very little difference between a human death and an animal death.

Thus, the film brushes aside all the complicated cross-identification and care between humans and animals. The deeper and deeper Mattie and Rooster go on their journey into the wilderness, the more they must confront the blurring between humans and animals, but, crucially, not in a metaphorical manner. The world gets more and more literal as they go. Later in the film, Rooster and Mattie encounter a shadowy figure who looks kind of deranged centaur: a bear sitting like a man on the back of a horse. When he is closer, it appears that the figure is a truly man, wearing a bearskin suit and with bear’s head perched on his own like a hat. He gives them directions, and explains to them that he is a doctor and a dentist. In the woods, in the world of this film, the most sophisticated figure is also the most feral-looking. What matters is that his human brain allows him to have some more survival skills. But that’s all human faculties are good for: survival. The ability to assign signification to themes and qualities, as well as the ability to attempt to construct a moral order out of things—human abilities—are not rendered pointless, even, so much as dangerous.

By the end of the film, Mattie, an adult woman (Elizabeth Marvel), has changed—she is closer to being an animal more than anyone else in the film, because she has been bitten by a snake, an its poison now flows through her. She has lost her whole arm. She has also lost her ability to love, represented as a stern spinster. She reads the Bible, which seems to suggest that she is trying, desperately to find meaning in a world beyond the earthly order. In this final scene, Rooster is revealed not to be dead, after all—he’s a drunk old man with no apparent memory of Mattie, the girl who he saved and who, it seemed, he might have loved. She finds him, but there is no connection between them. Their ordeal, rather than bring them closer emotionally, has completed its work in making them two creatures simply fighting to survive, with no attachments or other burdens that might get in the way.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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