True Grit and the higher law in a lawless universe

The Coen brothers are known for telling stories which portray a morally chaotic universe. In No Country for Old Men (2007), the filmmakers chose to do the unthinkable - killing off a major protagonist partway through, and allowing the villain to walk away at the end, practically unscathed. The film's title spoke of a world devoid of mercy and order.

A Serious Man (2009), similarly, pondered the possibility that we must live with life's lawlessness. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, and nothing resolves as we feel it 'ought' to. Trying to find any rhyme and reason in it all - trying to rationalise our suffering within an ordered worldview - is ultimately fruitless. The protagonist fights a losing battle to reconcile his experiences with the existence of a just God.

It is interesting, in the light of this, that the Coen brothers' latest film opens with a quote from Proverbs 28: 'The wicked flee though no-one pursues.' In these few words, an entire worldview is encapsulated, standing in stark contrast to the Coens' nihilistic paradigm. The sense of the Bible verse is that evildoers have good reason to fear. The universe is a just place: crimes will be punished in the end, and wrongs righted. True Grit takes place in a time and a culture where these are - at least, in theory - foundational assumptions.

Precocious fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is after justice. When her father is shot dead by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), she resolves to hire a lawman with 'true grit' to help her hunt the villain down. Choosing 'Rooster' Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) for his tough reputation, she finds an overweight, one-eyed hard drinker who is more than a little reluctant to aid her cause. Joined by vain, but skilled, Texas ranger LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), they set off into Indian country on a quest for retribution.

Based on the 1969 novel by Charles Portis, the film has gained much well-deserved critical attention. Though in many ways a straightforward story, its themes and characters are resonant and skilfully drawn. The eccentric dialogue in particular is a constant delight, full of archaic expressions which wouldn't be out of place in the King James Bible. Action, adventure, and black humour are all present - along with unexpected moments of beauty and tenderness.

Mattie is an extraordinary character, brought to life by Hailee Steinfeld's debut performance. Her gritty determination and unshakeable sense of justice are the driving force of the film. 'You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another,' she announces sternly in her opening voiceover, expressing her moral certainty. So deep-rooted is her conviction that she objects to LeBoeuf taking Chaney away to hang for his other crimes in Texas, insisting that his punishment is meted out in fitting terms. It is not enough to Chaney to be executed for any old crime. He must die for her father's murder; an eye for an eye.

'Nothing's free except the grace of God,' she says, but any concept of grace is absent from her approach to Chaney. She sees herself as an instrument of wrath, fully entitled to take what she is owed. Though we can understand her desire for vengeance, her quest raises uncomfortable questions about the extent of our rights as moral arbiters. What is the line between justice and revenge? Mattie's own belief system, if she were to look carefully, draws a distinction between its claim that there is ultimate justice in the world, and the idea that we should be the ones to mete it out:

'Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

"I will take revenge;
I will pay them back,"

says the LORD.' (Romans 12:19)

Mattie's final confrontation with her nemesis makes for a deliberate anticlimax. She discovers him to be, not the archetype of pure evil she had imagined, but merely stupid and ignorant. The world is a more uncomfortable place than she initially believed, populated not by shining heroes and wicked villains, but flawed people who fall somewhere in between. Rooster Cogburn and LeBoeuf are two such figures: arrogant, self-centred and violent, yet capable of great courage and even nobility. Both men become, in one sense, fallen idols as Mattie sees their true colours. But they also become brothers and fathers to her, fighting for her beyond the call of duty, commanding her respect and affection in the end.

The focus of the film shifts gradually from a straightforward revenge tale to something far more poignant. Mattie remains stoical in the face of the violence and death she is forced to confront on her journey, but she is not immune to fear and danger. The wilderness leaves its mark on her, a deep scar she will carry for the rest of her life. The most potent force in the story is eventually revealed to be, not Chaney's villainy, or even Mattie's indomitable will, but rather the sure, silent progress of time. It's time that has the final say, claiming Cogburn's life and putting an end to the era that he and LeBoeuf embodied. True Grit closes with the sense that the sands have shifted irrevocably beneath Mattie's feet, the great adventure we've witnessed now part of a sadly faded world.

Revealingly, in the light of all this, the old hymn Everlasting Arms plays over the closing credits. It's a suggestion that perhaps Mattie views Cogburn and LeBoeuf as shadows of a greater father and protector. If the world around her is chaotic, violent, changing, dying, it's not the end of the story. Her certainty is rooted in a higher law, a higher place, and a higher saviour:

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms . . .
Safe and secure from all alarm
I'm leaning on the everlasting arms.

This article was first published on Damaris' Culturewatch website ( - used with permission.
© Copyright Sophie Lister (2011)

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