True Grit, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Paramount)
Ringing Roger, July 2011
In 1969, Henry Hathaway directed John Wayne in a film version of Charles Portis’s cult novel, True Grit. I wouldn’t rank his performance with those of his in the great western films directed by John Ford, such as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. True, his depiction of the ageing, unscrupulous marshal, Rooster Cogburn, was enormously entertaining, but it had far too much of the loveable, grumpy rogue for my liking. Now we have the Coen brothers’ new version on DVD, what will we say about the performance of Jeff Bridges in the same role? Muttering and cursing where Wayne would declaim his lines self-consciously, this Rooster is a much meaner, nastier character – which is fitting, given the dark depths which the story plumbs.
It is because of those dark depths that the directors have decided to make central the 14-year old female protagonist, Mattie Ross (played with remarkable panache by the young Hailee Steinfeld). She is the means by which we come to understand them. In the Arkansas of the late 1870s, she is outraged by the fact that her hard-working father could be shot in cold blood in the centre of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and that the authorities are not interested in pursuing the matter because the murderer, Tom Chaney, has escaped into the dreaded ‘Indian territory’. She therefore hires Cogburn to pursue the culprit, and after much argument persuades him to take her with him. Cogburn’s background is criminal rather than legal: he has a history of robbery and violence, and it is clear that he has not become a marshal out of idealism – rather, it is due to his taste for violence and his need for a regular income. What we see as the film progresses is the pious, precise girl and the thuggish, slovenly marshal come to terms with each other. Their companion, LaBoeuf, a conceited Texas Ranger chasing Chaney for another murder (played by Matt Damon), also moves from resentment of Mattie’s presence and hostility to Cogburn towards acceptance and admiration of both.
It is the adult Mattie, decades later, who narrates the story in a sombre voice-over – matched by the austerely authentic cinematography, which conveys the harshness and bleakness of the landscape in which she has learnt to make her way. This narration device is important, as we need to understand that her Christian faith is tested by her experiences with Cogburn and LaBoeuf in the wilderness. They are all three on a quest, but it is Mattie’s spiritual journey that will preoccupy us as the film closes. For it is then that the musical theme, played throughout the film, takes on new meaning as we hear the country singer Iris DeMent singing the words of its source – a late nineteenth-century hymn, ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’. The title of that song comes from Deuteronomy 33: 27: ‘The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms. He will drive out your enemy before you, saying “Destroy him!”’ Thus speaks a God of compassion who is also capable of righteous revenge when either he or his chosen people are offended.
If we can catch the resonance of this, we will see that True Grit addresses the Biblical theme of the nature of the law. Mattie believes in God’s law; Rooster Cogburn believes in the law of the gun. Are they related, and does the reconciliation of the two characters tell us anything about the relationship between those two principles? The western film genre, after all, derives from the legendary years in which Christian settlers moved westwards across the North American continent, trying to tame the wilderness as they went because they believed they had a God-given right to do so. This process could only be carried out by force; and many western films have glorified the macho, aggressive stance of characters like Cogburn. Mattie herself starts with an idealised view of him, as she has been told that he is a man of ‘true grit’. She soon begins to see through the swagger and the swearing, but she is obliged to go along with the law of the gun which he espouses, in order to see justice done.
We might, then, wonder where is God’s order to be found, in all the conflict and chaos that we see depicted on the screen. The final use of the hymn certainly suggests that the religious theme is being taken very seriously by the Coen brothers – as does the quotation which forms its epigraph, appearing on the screen at the very beginning: ‘The wicked flee when no man pursueth’ (Proverbs 28:1). Again, this is the language of the law. But to understand the film as a whole, we have to make an important differentiation. For let’s not forget that the most important character of the Christian Bible is the man who, while claiming to fulfil the law, also claims to take us beyond it, issuing in an era of grace. In this light, a crucial statement of Mattie’s may come back to us as we hear DeMent’s poignant delivery of ‘Everlasting Arms’: ‘You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.’ It is a powerful statement, which must affect the way we interpret the film. But how?
Well, Mattie’s own journey is, as I say, spiritual; but it involves her acquiring the ‘true grit’ of the film’s title: she proves herself the equal of Cogburn in the violent world of the wild west. By the same token, we see Cogburn being blessed by what we might call ‘true grace’, as espoused and embodied by his young companion. The Coen brothers’ True Grit is the creative exploration of the tension between both principles, without in any way attempting to impose a resolution. As such, it is far more rewarding than the earlier film version, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes widely regarded as their greatest work.