Friday, February 25, 2011

True Grit

I recently saw True Grit. Here are some fairly random thoughts on the film.

Spoilers ahead! Please be forewarned.

The plot is simple. A little 14 y/o girl named Mattie is out to get the man who killed her dad. A man named Chaney. She doesn't just want justice, she wants vengeance. She aims to be the instrument of divine retribution against Chaney. She not only wants to see him dead, but she wants him to know who it was that killed him and why. So she hires the tough-as-nails, mean-as-they-come US marshall Cogburn to hunt down the killer. Later a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf joins the pair since he's likewise looking for Chaney who also killed a Texas senator. The entire movie is narrated by Mattie.

I found its overt Christian references interesting and worth commenting on:
  • The movie starts off with a quote from Prov 28:1a: "The wicked flee when no man pursueth."

    The truth is that we're all wicked, and all of us flee God's presence. We are all like Adam and Eve hiding among the trees of the garden from God. We know, deep down, that we have done wrong against God and against one another. So we run. No one has to pursue us. We run from ourselves. Our inward sin and guilt pushes us onwards and awaywards. Further down and further out. East of Eden. We run and wander the barren wastelands like Cain, the man with no God.

    On the other hand, God does pursue us. He pursues us in Christ. And Christ did not come to judge the world but to save it. Not to strike us down, but to offer us forgiveness. The question is will we receive him and the forgiveness found in him?

    God is the hound of heaven. He never ceases to give chase, he never wearies nor flags, he hunts all of us. Eventually he will either drive us to our knees begging for mercy from him, or he will execute justice because we refused to give up our rebellious arms against him and make peace with him.

  • Also at the beginning, as Mattie is narrating, she says, "You pay for everything in this world. There is nothing free, except the grace of God." This is the gospel in a nutshell. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). We will pay for all the wrongs we have done in this life, one way or another. So that, unless we turn to God and plead for his forgiveness, which he offers freely in Christ, we will get our due in due time.

  • Mattie thinks God's providence protects her on her mission: "The Author of all things watches over me." Likewise God sends sunshine and rain to both the lost and to his people. But how many of us acknowledge him who has given us life and all things to enjoy?

  • The language throughout the movie is sprinkled with biblical allusions. For example, at one point Mattie says that sleeping in the same room as dead bodies "felt like Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones." I suppose this is in part to evoke the language of the Wild West in the mid-to-late 19th century. Indeed, if you read some of the primary source documents from the period, you'll find a lot of common people had a far better command of the Bible than we do today. In fact, much of the Christian worldview was all but assumed in everyday American life during this time. As D.A. Carson has said, even if someone were an atheist, he'd have been a Christian atheist. By this Carson meant that they'd be denying the God of the Bible. Plus, they'd understand enough of the Bible to be able to interact with it a bit more fairly and accurately than for example the New Atheists of our day and age do (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett). It's surprising to me how biblically illiterate we are in the West. Especially in light of the fact that so much of our society and culture is founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

  • A dying man tells Cogburn that he'll meet his brother, a Methodist circuit preacher, "walking the streets of glory." Talk about heaven or hell these days is scoffed at. Yet if this life is all there is, then everything is at best absurd. We are born, we live, we die. In the end the universe will end. Nothing ultimately matters. As atheist historian and Cornell professor William Provine puts it: "There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That's the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either."

  • At the end of the movie, Mattie falls into a dark pit with snakes. Her fall is an immediate result of the recoil from firing her gun to shoot and kill Chaney. While in the pit, Mattie is bitten on the arm by a snake. Cogburn rushes down to rescue her. He cuts an x mark (or perhaps a cross) into her arm to let the venom bleed out. Her life is saved but she loses her arm. This brings to mind the protoevangelion.

  • There are several hymns and Christian-inspired songs in the background or foreground throughout the movie. For example, Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down." I thought Cash's song was particularly apropos to the flick's main theme. Likewise, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" which closed out the film. Of course, hymns are generally meant for believers who trust in God. Only a genuine believer can sing that he's leaning on God's everlasting arms. However, even for unbelievers, it's a reminder that, whether they like it or not, they must inevitably give account to God, for all must go to God in the end. Either God's arms will be outstretched to embrace us as his child or they will wield a sword to cut us down for our evil and rebellion against him and his kingdom.
Other thoughts:
  • I haven't seen No Country for Old Men, which the Coen brothers have said was meant to be viewed alongside True Grit.

  • I believe one of the Coen brothers was a philosophy major. This comes out in their films which often raise questions over ultimate meaning, life and death, ethics, and so forth.

  • Chaney is dumb. As such, he doesn't come off as threatening anymore. Perhaps he's meant to symbolize the banality of evil?

    Or perhaps Chaney is meant to be more like the Un-man in CSL's Perelandra, whom Ransom fought against:
    What chilled and almost cowed [Ransom] most was the union of malice with something nearly childish. For temptation, for blasphemy, for a whole battery of horrors, he was in some sort prepared; but hardly for this petty, indefatigable nagging as of a nasty little boy at a preparatory school. Indeed no imagined horror could have surpassed the sense which grew within him as the slow hours passed, that this creature was, by all human standards, inside out - its heart on the surface and its shallowness at the heart. On the surface, great designs and an antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within, when every veil had been pierced, was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness content to sate itself with the tiniest cruelties, as love does not disdain the smallest kindness.
  • Life isn't fair. It sounds like Chaney, not to mention others in his gang, killed several people. But the worst punishment they can suffer is death, yet only once. A man can't die twice. So justice in this life alone isn't complete.

  • Also, Mattie's dad was a good man, at least according to Mattie: "My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was." Mattie's dad was apparently trying to help Chaney when Chaney killed him. On the face of it, Mattie's dad didn't deserve to die. But we can't merely weigh a man's good deeds against his bad ones, and then think that if they've done more good than bad then they don't deserve to die. There's no such thing as "deserve" or "don't deserve" among fallen, sinful creatures. We all deserve to die. We all deserve God's wrath for the wrongs we've done against him and others.

  • Besides, from the perspective of the irreligious, death is still the great equalizer. Good or bad, death will eventually come. We will be buried six foot under.

  • Can we take on the role of being the divine executioner like Mattie does? Isn't it God who decides? Plus, God's word forbids murder. For Mattie, is this murdering an innocent man? Well, not exactly, because she's killing a murderer. Not to mention this is the Wild West. Who's gonna act if not Mattie? Numbers 35 allows for avengers of blood and cities of refuge - although for manslaughter or accidental killing, not premeditated or intentional killing, at least as far as I understand.

  • The Coen brothers have said that there's a misplaced righteousness and vengeance in Mattie, and that her churchified Christian upbringing is the source. But if Christianity was meant to be portrayed negatively in the movie, it doesn't necessarily come out this way in the film, I don't think.

  • Although it turns out Mattie never married. Plus she appears to end up a stern, hardened woman. Perhaps this is the price of vengeance? Perhaps that's what the Coen brothers are suggesting? But this could easily be interpreted in other directions.

  • Mattie is a strong female lead. Yet her desire to exact punishment - and her support of capital punishment no less - cuts against liberal Hollywood's beliefs about the immorality of the death penalty, about rehabilitation over and against retribution, and so forth. Then again, Hollywood liberals don't inhabit the world of the Wild West which was often brutal. Where people lived on the frontier faraway from law and authority. Where might (or the fastest gun) often made right. Where natural disasters loomed so near. Where men and women and children could be cut down in an instant, either by nature, by Native Americans, by bandits, or by their own in town.

  • On a different interpretation, maybe the movie is meant to portray a world without God? An unredeemed world. A world with no hope for a redeemer. A world where we are not only the means to justice but the end of it. Justice begins and ends with humans, which is frightening to consider since it's both men who make the laws as well as break the laws they've made. There would be no objective standard for what's right and wrong other than what society has hobbled together, and which society can change at any time. Perhaps that's why it takes "true grit" to survive this world.

    Or the movie could be seen as what most people think of when they think of the OT world where God is supposedly a God of wrath and vengeance, which is in contrast to the NT world where Jesus is loving and forgiving and so forth. Of course, this is a terrible caricature. After all, God's mercy and love are hardly absent in the OT. Plus God's wrath and judgment are far more palpable in the NT. For example, see the book of Revelation alone. Also I believe Carson has mentioned that Jesus himself speaks of hell more often than the entire OT or at least far more often than any single biblical writer or character/person.

    In any case, living in the world of the Wild West but devoid of Judeo-Christian influence is arguably a Wild West which has no solid foundation for morals such as protection for women and children, defending the orphan and the widow, providing for the poor and downtrodden, helping the weak and helpless, etc. Perhaps that's why Mattie believes she has to take justice into her own hands.

  • There's no obvious moral point or closure to the story. No explicit lesson. Not even any heroes to praise, per se. It doesn't seem to matter to anyone besides the main characters whether Chaney was killed. That Mattie got her vengeance. What becomes of Cogburn or LaBoeuf. Particularly Cogburn who is both the harbinger of justice as well as the person who should be the last to escape justice. Things just "are," and that's all there is to it. Everything is vague and ambiguous. The ending seems unsatisfying because it seems incomplete.

    In a way it's like reading the book of Job before Job's final chapter. We live in a world where everything appears to be meaningless and unsatisfying. Where God appears distant, and inscrutable. Where the good suffer and the evil prosper. Lots of moral shades of grey, no black and white, clear right and wrong. Even within ourselves as regenerate men and women we see good fruit mixed with rotten fruit, strivings toward holiness dappled by the stains of sinful desires. But the truth is that the last chapter of Job is coming. Whether we see or hear it now, God will have the last say. The final word. God will reward the righteous, whom he has made righteous. But God will also punish and slay the wicked. God is the final arbiter of justice. Or as the apostle Paul quotes: "For it is written, vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Rom 12:19).


  1. I'm no longer a Christian, but I think this movie review was excellent (though of course I disagree with the Christian interpretations), and did a very good job of interacting with the basic elements and plot of the movie, which I personally enjoyed.

  2. Great movie apart from the terrible ending which kind of left me thinking they couldn't be bothered to write a proper ending.

  3. I kind of like the ending. Sure, maybe it was a bit on the bland side, but it was bittersweet. The bad guys had been defeated, but at the end of it all, Cogburn died alone with little fanfare and Mattie was well-off enough, but didn't seem to live a very fulfilling life. It's a rather un-Hollywood kind of ending, which I like.

  4. More spoiler, but well worth the read:

  5. Chaney is given two distinct characterizations, one as being stupid and the other as being much shrewder than he appears. One of the playful parts of the story is the contrast between reputation and reality, both in terms of self-perception and public notoriety. Cogburn is considered the meanest martial but he obviously has a weird sentimental streak, as though Mattie were in some sense a way for him to be some kind of father to someone before he dies.

    Mattie is "the little bookkeeper" and though formally recognizable as an orphaned girl is actually arguably the shrewdest and most conniving character in the entire story. She is the most shrewd and serpent-like character in the story and I think one of the narrative ironies in the story is that even when her act of vengeance causes her to fall in with literal snakes she has not seen what her quest has revealed about her character. As the marshall and Texas ranger both tell her, if she were content to get justice then either law officer catching Chaney and bringing him to justice in Texas would suffice. Mattie won't accept this and despite her piety she has forgotten that "vengeance is mine saith the Lord". I'm not sure I agree with the Coens that Mattie gets her lust for revenge from her Christian faith, rather I would say she justifies her thirst for retribution WITH her Christian faith.

    Having not read the Portis novel I'm not sure that the intent in depicting Mattie's religion was intended to satirize her piety as the motive for her bloodlust, but it may well have intended to send up her capacity to see herself as in the right despite being as willing to kill as the men she pursues. I take this as at least possible when we finally meet Lucky Ned Pepper. After declaring to Cogburn "I will kill this girl. You know I'll do it, Cogburn!" he then insists to Chaney that if any harm comes to Mattie Ross he won't get paid! Pepper is ironically and very humorously revealed to be a weirdly honorable criminal!

  6. Thanks, guys! Several interesting comments too. :-)

  7. Of course, of a Native American, California Indian background ethnically, the bells were ringing more loudly at two parts, the very beginning and the promptness of cutting off speech to the unfortunate soul, the third in line and then how Cogburn scolds the two children abusing the mule, I believe it was a mule?

    Besides that, I also liked the over and under tone of Biblical Christianity in the quotes and background songs.

  8. My dad is American Indian and of a tribe from the Northwest so, yes, the part where the white executioners don't let the Indian man even say anything before they kill him really jumped out at me. I think it's one of those small but important details that help to indicate the often satirical nature of the story.

    One of the other small moments that sticks with me is Cogburn's dryly hilarious line "Well, don't be looking for Quincy."