Year’s end brought several worthwhile new films, among them “The King’s Speech” and a remake of “True Grit,” the classic Western that earned the aging and ailing John Wayne an Oscar.
“True Grit,” totally ignored by the Golden Globe awards, has by now earned substantially more in the theatres than its moral opposite, “The Social Network.”
This gritty film by the Coen brothers confronts the most theological and religious issues among the current crop of movies — perhaps because, when compared to its 1969 predecessor, it comes closer to the spirit of Charles Portis’s novel.
Already, the opening of the film confronts the viewer with a biblical quote from Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion,” while the 19th-century hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays in the background.
A religious film
Several commentators have pointed out the “religious” and “ethical” character of the film, so much so that Stanley Fish, in a perceptive opinion piece in The New York Times, declared the remake “a truly religious movie.”
For him, divine grace is cast in its deeply mysterious character, by separating human ways from God’s purposes and any righteousness of works — or, as my mother used to say, Gottes Wege sind nicht unsere Wege, “God’s ways are not our ways.”
Mattie Ross’s stubborn reliance on what she thinks is the right thing to do because it has divine sanction gives her the strength of her convictions. In the face of inscrutable events, a disinterested justice system and wavering and fickle helpers, she sets out into Choctaw Nation territory (in the mountains of what is today southeastern Oklahoma).
Played by Hailee Steinfeld, the 14-year-old girl seeks to avenge the senseless killing of her father by a man named Chaney.
In the words of Portis’s novel, Mattie’s father was “trying to do that short devil a good turn,” and died for simply wanting to be “his brother’s keeper.”
Mattie hires Rooster Cogburn, an aging and boozing federal marshal, who nevertheless retains a reputation for “true grit” and is played ably by Jeff Bridges.
They are joined by a self-important and cocky Texas Ranger, Le Boeuf (Matt Damon), who in the course of the film radically revises his opinion of Mattie.
No cheap grace
The novel and the recent film, in a manner that evokes Calvinism, resist not only the all-too-cheap grace in much of contemporary evangelicalism, but also many 20th-century humanistic ideas about crime and punishment (toward which I also lean).
A paragraph in the novel sets out that “hard doctrine” of divine election, which runs “contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play.”
In proof-texting support for such theological views, Mattie, a Southern Presbyterian, lists an array of classical biblical passages, drawn from the letters of the apostle Paul and 1 Peter. What “was good for Paul and Silas,” she preaches to the reader, “is good enough for me. It is good enough for you, too.”
The evocative music chosen by Carter Burwell for this movie underscores the steadfast reliance on a sense behind the apparent nonsense of this world and an ultimate trust in the face of so much earthly injustice.
Burwell’s selections chiefly come from 19th-century Protestant hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” sung by Iris DeMent.
The hymn was a joint production in 1888 of the music teacher and Presbyterian elder Anthony Showalter and his prolific collaborator, the evangelist Elisha Hoffman.
Based on a biblical text — Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms …” — the hymn originally sought to comfort two men whose wives had recently died.
When Carter Burwell, who had previously arranged the music for the movies of the Coen brothers, looked for appropriate music that would be suitable for “True Grit,” he found “contemporary recordings distinctly uninspiring” since they were too “warm, comforting, uplifting.”
The hymnic repertoire of another time more truly expressed the mood of this stark film about 19th-century justice.
I left the theatre thinking about the ethical choices “True Grit” presents. While one may rightfully question self-righteous 19th-century morality, with its unyielding notions of retribution, I could only be impressed by the strength of Mattie’s internal reliance on religious authority and singleness of purpose with which she pursued her goal.
Even at the end of the story, when she has reburied Rooster Cogburn in the family plot, she makes no concessions to the ridicule of the people and the charge that she never married because she loved only money and the Presbyterian Church.
“It is true that I love my church and my bank. What is wrong with that?”
Her austere resolve contrasts with the ethical relativism of much of today’s amoral universe. Perhaps the popular success of the movie indicates a contemporary longing to regain lost certainties and strength of character.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.