We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar. I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.
The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons. This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too. The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language. The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture. That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips. And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier, the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid. The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.
The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies. I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g., “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).
I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com.. The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature. He says this about the movie:
The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.
Fish takes a key line from the movie: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.
A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.
At any rate, True Grit is great fun, and it will also stay with you.
If you’ve seen it, weigh in.