From her opening voice-over in True Grit (2010), Mattie Ross of Yell County (Hailee Steinfeld) lets us know she aims to “avenge her father’s blood.” She may frame later arguments for her actions with reference to the law, and justice being done, but these words place a veneer of civilization over primitive notions of retribution.
Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) killed her father; she wants him hanged in Fort Smith for that crime, but if that’s not possible, she wants him shot. She doesn’t care that Chaney also murdered a state senator from Texas, or that Ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) has been tracking the outlaw for months, to bring him back to stand trial in Waco. Mattie wants Chaney put to death in such a manner that he will know he is dying as retribution for killing her father. The idea that families of other victims might also want to see justice done, and in some sense have a prior claim, means nothing to Mattie. Her “justice” is the only justice that matters.
That Mattie has no interest in the law, true justice or “fairness” becomes clear when she asks the sheriff in Fort Smith to recommend the best U.S. Marshal for pursuing Chaney into the Indian Territory. He names three: Waters, the best the tracker; Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), “a pitiless man, double tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking”; and Quinn, “probably the best,” who “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Mattie opts for Cogburn, rejecting the notion that Chaney deserves fair treatment.
Pity has no place in her world view, nor does she care about what is actually fair; she wants revenge. When she hears Cogburn give testimony in court, hears that he made no effort to bring the criminals he was tracking back for trial but instead ambushed and shot them dead, Mattie knows she has found her man.
Although she frequently threatens to sue, and uses legal action to coerce people into doing what she wants, Mattie obviously has no faith in the law, and with good reason. After Chaney murdered her father, she tells us, he fled on horseback but “could have walked his horse because not a soul in that city could be bothered to give chase.”
Shortly after she arrives in town, she witnesses a triple hanging. As his final statement before death, one of the criminals says that he wouldn’t have been convicted had he murdered the right man, and insists that there are worse men than he in the audience. Although the hangman allowed the two white men to speak, he cuts the Indian short and puts a hood over his head before he can deliver his final words. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen show us a world where civilization has only the most tenuous hold and justice is arbitrary and capricious.
And yet, Mattie’s talk is full of legal language, replete with references to justice. Watching this movie reminded me of the moment when, as a young father, I realized that what my children really meant when they said, “That’s not fair!” was “I don’t like that!” Until then, I had tried to reason with them, to convince them that my decision, or the punishment they were receiving, was in fact entirely fair. From then on, I understood that my children, and many other people, make references to fairness and justice when, in fact, they’re simply angry that they can’t have things their own way.
In my practice, clients frequently describe a situation as “unfair”; more often than not, they really mean that they don’t like it. For instance, one client told me it was unfair that she had to work so hard to pay for her education alone, without aid from her mom and dad, while other parents were paying for their children’s education. It was also “unfair,” I could have pointed out, that she was born intelligent, attractive and healthy, in the wealthiest country in the world, attending university, while entirely uneducated people were sick and starving in Africa; that sort of injustice didn’t matter to her. She actually meant that she hated that her parents weren’t well-off and able to pay for her eduction, felt envy for those kids whose parents could and did, and resented having to hold down a job and go to school at the same time.
At one point late in True Grit, Mattie and LeBoeuf are discussing the distinction between Chaney’s murder of the Texas state senator and his murder of the senator’s dog. It comes down to a difference, they say, between “an act that is wrong in itself” and one that is wrong only according to human “laws and mores.”
The scene implies that right and wrong exist in a realm apart from human attempts to codify them, a Platonic ideal of morality and justice. If so, the world Mattie Ross inhabits is a very faint shadow of that ideal, distorted by violent and vengeful notions of retributive justice. In the end, “justice” seems to mean that whoever is stronger, braver and more relentless in pursuing what he or she wants will prevail: finding a man or woman with “true grit” to fight on your side represents your best hope that justice (i.e., getting your own way) will be served.