The Coen brothers’ adaptation of the 1960s novel by Charles Portis is a fine example of a Jacobean revenge tragedy transposed to 19th century USA. 14-year-old Mattie seeks justice – or is it really vengeance – for the murder of her father: amurder that left her siblings orphans and her mother a widow.
Her audacious and indeed courageous pursuit of the perpetrator of the murder is both entertaining and somewhat peculiar. What sort of 14 year old would behave in this way in 1870s USA? The gothic language of the male protagonists, their proclivity for brutal violence, and their justification of this violence by convoluted masculine reasoning is both entertaining and disturbing.
Mattie’s search for ‘justice’ causes damage to others – both human and animal. And the young heroine does indeed get her revenge in the end – actually killing her father’s murderer for herself. But she pays a price. She loses her arm to a poisonous snakebite. She never manages to settle down and marry – surely a prerequisite for a woman in late 19th century USA. Perhaps more significantly she loses touch with those who aided her revenge and when she tries to reunite with them 25 years later discovers one has died days before her arrival and the other had disappeared from history’s record.
In these last scenes we see that the attractive perkiness and determination of the young 14 year old have become closer to cruelty and bitterness – a blight on the joy that she though her revenge would bring.
The film is visually satisfying. There are many striking images: a crow pecking at the dead body of a man hanged high on a leafless tree; snowy landscapes and trudging horses; a vagabond wearing a bear’s head; a decayed corpse harbouring venomous snakes. As for the humans, the Coen’s have assembled a cast whose physical appearance seems to reflect their moral position in the world of the film – all are compellingly distinctive and their characters are explicit in their bodily appearance.