Rooster Cogburn seems to have drinking issues in True Grit. Yet the film doesn't depict him - and viewers don't respond to him - as an alcoholic. Why?

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 30, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Film and Addiction II: Is Rooster Cogburn Alcoholic?

When Mattie first meets Rooster Cogburn near the beginning of True Grit, the Coen brothers' most recent creation, he is suffering the after(?)effects of a drinking episode, laying out on a cot behind a Chinese merchant's general store, evidence of booze and hangover reeking from him.

She is there to hire Rooster to assist her in avenging her father's murder, since she hears he has "true grit." But we are set up to think of Cogburn (especially in the unruly, chaotic environment in which 14-year-old Mattie finds herself) as a scoundrel, another unreliable frontier bum out for himself.

So, we are as surprised as Mattie is when she arrives at the store very early to set out on their quest, only to discover Cogburn has already packed and left with the third member in their party, LaBoeuf. Cogburn didn't take the money and go on a drunk. Nor did he forget - despite his tremulous condition when they made their deal - what he was about.

And so it goes. In the course of their journey, Cogburn uncovers a cache of store-bought whisky in a cabin. His eyes light up and he proceeds to drink the entire supply over the course of the next several days. Aside from neglecting his supervisory responsibilities with a teenager (☺), Cogburn places himself in considerable peril by riding drunk over rugged terrain, in Indian country, pursuing men who we are ready to kill him on sight.

This life-endangering, uncontrolled drinking would seem to qualify Cogburn for both an AA and DSM diagnosis of having a substance-related disorder. Yet none of the reviews focuses on his drinking, because the film doesn't make him out as an alcoholic.

Cogburn prevails in direct conflict with multiple opponents and takes care of Mattie -  saving her life by riding through the night until his horse drops to get her medical care after she is bitten by a snake. What is more, although Cogburn appears during these events to be a grizzled old-timer, we learn in the film's afterword that he is to live another 25 years - dying of some mysterious heat-related illness as a member of a Wild West show. Even in her interaction with the show's namesake - Cole Younger - there are intimations of debauched "good times" among the men. But, in this situation too, Cogburn must have been counted on to keep up his obligations as a performer.

So why does such a man go on extended drunks? The top three reason could be (a) because he only occasionally has access to alcohol and he exploits those situations fully, (b) it was common practice among the men in his milieu, (c) maybe he does have a deep dark spot he is covering over in his life - a lonely man with several ex-wives and a son from whom he is alienated.

But in the film's - and the era's - terms, this didn't make him an alcoholic. He was protected by his "true grit" - his sense of duty and professional pride, his competence, and his caring for another human being.