[SPOILER ALERT: This review contains plot revelations; don't read past the second paragraph if you don't want to know how the story ends.]
We can be fairly certain that the Coen brothers didn't intend to use True Grit to deliver an environmental message. It's a human film about human failings: pride, greed, and revenge -- the very human things that so often end up trampling nature, and that, in this case, keep the characters oblivious to the beauty around them.
As Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old heroine, obsessively pursues her father's killer, she proves to be an almost unbelievably viable outdoorswoman, stoically fording a river on horseback, camping out nightly without complaint, bracing the elements, staring down death. She is, by any account, brave. And it's refreshing to see a teenage female lead who doesn't primp or pine.
But her bravado comes to naught. She ends up avenged but unsatisfied, losing much more than she would have if she'd instead pursued forgiveness, acceptance, and trust in the law. Thanks to a snakebite, she loses an arm. To buy a horse and hire a marshal (Rooster Cogburn, played by the scene-stealing Jeff Bridges) for the pursuit, she parts with most of her family's money. And, in the film's most poignant scene, she weeps for the horse she's come to love after he collapses with exhaustion. Used up, he must be shot.
What bothers the viewer is that Mattie never reveals an emotional motive for wanting revenge as badly as she says she does. She operates out of black-and-white logic -- simple good versus bad -- with no allowance for the shades of ambiguity that a more mature understanding of the world would dictate. Maybe, one wonders, the notion of revenge is an adolescent one.
What does become clear is that, rattlesnakes notwithstanding, the most dangerous thing in the outdoors is always other humans. It's their vices -- whether whiskey (Cogburn), pride (LaBoeuf, a sound performance by Matt Damon), revenge (Mattie, handled capably by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, whose execution, while admirable, errs a touch on the side of overacting), or lust for money (most of the men) -- that screw things up. The snowy woodlands (New Mexico and Texas as Arkansas and Oklahoma) serve as a peaceful and constant backdrop for all the violence.
When we finally meet the wanted man, he's critically human too -- scared, dumb, always complaining that nothing goes right for him. All the characters, in fact, are as overpronounced and as flawed as one would expect of the Coens.
Still, True Grit doesn't allow for, nor condone, simple or complete misanthropy. We see that humans are most likeable when they admit their vulnerability and errors, when they extend a hand and ask for pardon. When people see themselves as victims, or as righteously entitled, that's when the innocence around them comes into real danger.
We leave the theater wondering what exactly the takeaway's supposed to be: During the last scene, an older, amputated Mattie, far from riding into the sunset, hobbles around aimlessly, unmarried, childless, proud, stiff-lipped, firm.