Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Confidential to Rooster Cogburn: I never understood Negotiable Instruments either.

Pnin and I saw True Grit on Sunday night. As the linked review says, the film is lovely. There are beautiful scenes of Texas and Arkansas, and, as Kurt Loder says in Reason, the opening scene of Mattie Ross's father's dead body in softly falling snow, illuminated only by a porch light, is a master class unto itself.

As Amanda Marcotte says, this is quite the feminist movie. The heroine, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross, is both smart and brave, and it is clear early on to whom the title refers. There are impressive scenes showing her physical courage. But what's most interesting to me, and what seems to have gone unnoticed elsewhere, is just how much law talk there is in this movie. In a crucial scene near the movie's beginning meant to establish her intelligence and toughness, Mattie successfully gets the better of a horse dealer because she knows the law. She actually throws out the word "replevin" during this sequence, which summoned for me all too vivid memories of 1L., Ditto a scene in which Mattie and her Texas Ranger companion ponder the differences between malum prohibitum and malum in se. And there's my favorite line in the movie, in which Mattie's U.S. Marshal companion* tells her that he tried to be a lawyer, but he just couldn't get his head around negotiable instruments. Likewise, there are any number of other references to settling things "at law" or "going to law." **

I have not seen the older John Wayne version of the movie, but Pnin tells me that he does not recall nearly as much legal chatter in the first version. I'm left wondering why. One possibility is that this is merely in line with the Coen brothers' choice to let in more dialogue from the Charles Portis novel. Another is that the message of all the law talk is clear: to be a powerful person in Mattie's world, it's important to know the law. Mattie succeeds because she does. The flattery falls nicely on my ears. Still, in a less litigation-happy world, knowing the law would be a less important criterion for becoming a powerful and successful person. It's perhaps an unfortunate sign of just how litigious we have become that the link between "knowledgeable about law" and "powerful" is so neat and tidy then.

Of course, the law was simpler then than it is now. It's far less likely today that even a whip-smart fourteen-year-old could master the skills necessary to carry out business deals that Mattie Ross does. There's just a more confusing thicket of laws and regulations to wade through regarding any transaction. It's a shame that it's so much harder for people of any age to transact business without the help of specialists.

*This is possibly a stupid question, but there seem to be federalism problems with the way that the U.S. Marshals service is set up in this movie. Rooster Cogburn is going after Tom Chaney for a homicide that took place in Arkansas, which is a state law crime. At least, we're not given any facts indicating that there would be some kind of federal interest in prosecuting Chaney. So why then are federal officials chasing after Chaney for a state level crime? Is it because Chaney had fled into Indian Territory, and U.S. marshals and only they had jurisdiction to look for outlaws hiding out there?

**For cringeworthy lines about law in other recent popular movies, my favorite is Rashida Jones's character's comment to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network that she is "a second year associate specializing in voir dire." Is there any second year associate anywhere in this whole great country who actually specializes in voir dire?


  1. To your first asterisked question:

    Cogburn pursues Chaney as a bounty hunter paid by Ross. Cogburn is introduced as a violent rogue, so jurisdiction probably doesn't come up in his thinking, only that he is to be paid. On the other hand, your "Chaney's in Indian territory" thesis makes a lot of sense.

    Matt Damon seems more problematic, jurisdictionally (can't think of his character's name) - he's a Texas Ranger pursuing Chaney across Texas state lines for the murder of a Texas state senator. Texas Rangers strike me as having Texas-only jurisdiction, and the murder of a Texas state senator in Texas would probably be a Texas-flavored crime.


  2. The original is full of legal wrangling as well, but much of it would escape unnoticed since while legal theory and practice is there, legal terminology is absent in the John Wayne version. The result is greater subtlety of the legal aspects of the film.

    N.B. I've not seen the new version, but where Ross gets her way with the horse trader in the original, the concepts of chattel property rights, replevin, restitution and even suit on the contract vs suit on the tort (breach of contract vs. conversion) come up. The dialogue is very plain, so the underlying legal theories are not nearly as obvious to the viewer.

  3. A comment on the second asterisked paragraph: I just blogged about that very line from The Social Network ( It had my husband and me laughing hysterically - voir dire specialist? More like document review specialist!