"Only God’s Grace Is Free"
The novel TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis has grown in stature since it was first published in 1968. In fact, some people have compared it to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which has often been called The Great American Novel.
Joel and Ethan Coen (FARGO, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, MILLER’S CROSSING, and O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?) have brought to bear their filmmaking talents to a new version of the story that hews a bit more closely to the book but also pays some homage to the 1969 version starring the great John Wayne in his only Oscar winning role. Best of all, unlike the 1969 movie, their movie adopts some of the overt Christian, biblical references used by the book’s narrator, Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who travels West to hire a lawman to capture the outlaw who murdered her father.
This movie opens with a citation of Proverbs 28:1, “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” Of course, the second half of that verse says, “But the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
That second half perfectly describes the character of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, a farm girl steeped in Presbyterian values. In voiceover, young Mattie (played magnificently by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) describes her father’s deadly encounter with a drunken hired hand named Tom Chaney. Chaney shot Mattie’s father dead, she says, when he tried to stop Chaney from killing someone else. Right at the beginning, Mattie remarks that there’s nothing free in life but God’s Grace and, therefore, Tom Chaney must pay for his crime. The problem is, Chaney has apparently lit out for Indian Territory to escape the long but apathetic arm of the law.
So, after bargaining cleverly with the stable owner trying to cheat her out of fair recompense for her father’s horses, Mattie hires the most ruthless U.S. Marshal in town – one-eyed, alcohol-swilling Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges. At first, Rooster wants nothing to do with the job, but, admiring Mattie’s spunk, agrees to take up her offer.
Meanwhile, Mattie runs into a young, bragging Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (“LaBeef”), played by Matt Damon. LaBoeuf has been tracking Tom Chaney because he murdered a state senator after killing the senator’s dog. Mattie explains to the Ranger that Chaney needs to hang for her father’s murder, not the senator’s, but he tells her in no uncertain terms that Chaney is HIS man, not hers. Besides, he wants the Texas reward.
Mattie had told Rooster she was paying him so she could go along with him and keep tabs on her investment. Even so, early in the morning, Rooster and LeBoeuf ride out together, with the intention of splitting the Texas reward for Chaney. Mattie hurriedly catches up with them, but has to ford a wild river alone on the new horse she bought from the stable owner. The two men watch this amazing feat, but when Mattie reaches the other shore, LaBoeuf starts spanking her with a switch. Mattie pleads for help from Rooster, and Rooster pulls out his pistol and threatens to kill LaBoeuf if he doesn’t stop. Thus, the decision is made – Mattie can go along.
Soon, the three unlikely companions discover that Chaney (Josh Brolin) is running with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper – no relation) and his gang. After much adventure, climactic showdowns with Ned, Chaney and Ned’s gang occur. Only “True Grit,” Christian chivalry and a strong black horse will save Mattie’s life.
TRUE GRIT has all the ingredients for a classic western, but it also has a style, wit and voice all its own.
In the classic western, or at least those with any profundity, true justice depends on the individual rather than the law, which is shown to be ineffectual against evil or lawless men. Often, the western uses violence to affirm individualism but stops short of favoring anarchy by making the individual’s violent action an ultimate defense of the community against the threat of anarchy and evil. Frequently, the Western Hero is an archetypal wanderer who is neither part of Civilization nor part of the vast landscape, or Wilderness, in which he roams. This gives many westerns a tragic sense of loss.
All these things seem present in this movie, even though the story’s focus is on Mattie Ross, a determined young woman. The last part, about the typical Western Hero, is reflected in the character of Rooster, an isolated man who, though he defends Civilization and knows his way around the Wilderness, ultimately belongs to neither. The sense of loss is reflected in the movie’s last scene as Mattie reflects on her adventure and the men who helped her.
In sticking closely to the book, TRUE GRIT captures the style, wit and voice of Mattie from the book, as well as those of Marshal Cogburn and Ranger LaBoeuf. These characters speak in the more formal, literary cadence of the 19th Century. As such, they convey a lyrical chivalry that stands out against the harsh realities they face. When you couple that with the movie’s references to Mattie’s Christian background, you are left with something truly unique, which you don’t quite get in the 1969 movie.
All that said, this story and these characters also fit perfectly well with the unique style of filmmaking that the Coen brothers always bring to their movies, whether the movies succeed or not. Thus, like FARGO, you have characters here that speak with their own unique style and rhythm. And, some of the outlaws in Ned Pepper’s gang behave like some of the stupid but ruthless criminal types in previous Coen brother movies.
TRUE GRIT has a lot of humor in it, but it also has some heart-rending moments. The characters are very compelling, even if you’ve read the book or seen the John Wayne movie. And, there’s plenty of western excitement for those who like the kind of action that only westerns can bring to the movies.
There are, however, some strong obscenities and profanities. And, one scene of violence is extreme, when one outlaw whacks off the fingers of another outlaw to stop him from talking, forcing Marshal Cogburn to shoot him dead at close range. These things require strong caution, but the movie’s overt Christian, biblical themes and powerful spirit of chivalry and justice are stirring and gratifying.
TRUE GRIT is one of the more unforgettable movies of the year.
(CCC, PPP, BBB, LL, VVV, AA, M) Very strong Christian worldview with some very strong American, moral, biblical values about justice, chivalry, manners and etiquette, doing right, fortitude, completing a hard and difficult job, and courage or bravery and that includes explicit references to the Grace of God being the only thing in life that’s free, to Proverbs 28:1 and to the Book of Ezekiel, plus character says, “Praise the Lord!” and heroic character prays to the Lord for help at a crucial moment and apparently gets it, marred by some rough language and drunkenness; seven obscenities, five GD profanities and one light profanity; one scene of very strong violence with images of blood when villain cuts off fingers of companion about to talk and the Marshal shoots the villain in the head, plus some strong violence such as shootouts, rifle blasts, corpse hanging on tree, image of three frozen corpses, man trapped under fallen horse, character bit on hand by rattlesnake and another character cuts hand to suck out the poison, hero hit on head, girl sleeps in funeral parlor with corpses, villain hit on head, and man places boot and knife on girl’s throat, threatening violence; no sex but young man tells sassy girl he was thinking about kissing her; no nudity; alcohol use and drunkenness; smoking; and, police officers insult each other because one is a green Texas Ranger and one is a veteran U.S. Marshal, woman rebukes man for not standing up when she appears, and hero admits he once robbed a bank as a youth but claims he never robbed “no citizen,” but villainy and rude behavior get their comeuppance.
TRUE GRIT, adapted from the Charles Portis novel by Joel and Ethan Coen, hews a bit more closely to the book but also pays some homage to the 1969 version starring the great John Wayne. After her father is killed in cold blood, spunky 14-year-old Presbyterian farm girl Mattie Ross hires one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to track down the killer. Forcing his way onto the posse is a loquacious Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (“LaBeef”), who wants the killer for shooting a state senator. The unlikely trio head into Indian Territory, where they find out that the killer has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang of brutal outlaws.
TRUE GRIT has a lot of humor, but it also has some heart-rending moments. The characters are very compelling, even if you’ve seen the John Wayne movie. Also, there’s plenty of room for the kind of action that only westerns can bring to the movies. There are, however, some strong obscenities and profanities, and one violent scene is extreme. These things require strong caution, but the movie’s overt Christian, biblical themes and powerful spirit of chivalry and justice are stirring.