True Grit and the Grace of God (Part 2)

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The rivalry between the Deputy U.S. Marshall and the Texas Ranger goes beyond the exigencies of the current chase. Rooster slights La Beouf’s Civil War service under General Kirby Smith, probably for the ineffectiveness of Smith’s forces in the Trans-Mississippi against Ulysses Grant and the Union Navy. La Beouf, meanwhile, snorts at Rooster’s loyalty to Captain William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson, Civil War guerrilla fighters most infamously associated with the Lawrence Massacre.

But Mattie is the real heroine, not least for her skill in managing her two pigheaded escorts. If she is an unusually hard person, she has had an unusually hard life. From her late father she has learned to drive a hard bargain, a skill that serves her well in a hard country. One is reminded of Ree Dolly of Winter’s Bone, another teenaged girl who has lost her father and has a less-than-competent mother and younger siblings, is saddled with too much adult responsibility, and is obliged to embark on a deadly quest in an icy, hostile landscape among lawless men. Mattie’s situation isn’t as harrowing as Ree’s; she has better help, and even the lawless men she meets west of Fort Smith aren’t as brutal as those Ree must confront. But she pays a higher price, perhaps.

The dialogue is a big part of what makes True Grit so hugely entertaining. Most of it is from Portis, and both films stick pretty close to source in this respect, so much of it will be familiar to fans of the 1969 film: Mattie’s rapier-like parley with the auctioneer Stonehill over the horses; Rooster’s semi-effective testimony in Judge Parker’s court; Rooster and Mattie sparring on how and where Tom Chaney will pay for his crimes. But the language is even more striking in the new film, with more emphasis on the archaic rhythms of the sentences, at once rustic and poetic, all but unsmoothed by contractions.

Master cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen collaborator whose previous work includes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, creates images of striking beauty with a limited palette that seems all dust and rocks. Standout supporting performances include Josh Brolin as the whiny killer Chaney and a startling Barry Pepper as the revolting but not unthoughtful outlaw “Lucky” Ned Pepper.

The Coens’ film is franker than its predecessor about the violence of the old West and of Portis’s book; it is also franker about the religiosity, from frequent scriptural references to a score shot through with hymnody (mostly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” but also “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “The Glory-Land Way” and others). The film opens with an epigram from Proverbs (“The wicked flee when none pursueth”), and in the first-act public hanging one of the condemned men earnestly urges onlookers to “train up your children in the way that they should go” and avoid a similar fate. But the next condemned man is defiant—“I see men out there in that crowd worse than me”—and the thoughts of the third man, alas, are lost forever.

Is there justice? Does the Author of all things see? In an opening monologue Mattie declares: “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.” Chaney pays for his crime—and Mattie pays for her vengeance, in one and the same act. Significantly, the Coens depart from source here, and there is no mistaking the moral rigor of cause and effect in this reworking.

There is justice, but there is also grace, if we choose to see it, in the same scene, in a whispered two-word prayer and the pull of another trigger—an impossible shot that winds up saving two lives, including Mattie’s. And there is grace, too, in Rooster’s finest moment, in which he comes to the end of himself, and finds that there is more there than we might have thought.

Content advisory: Recurring, sometimes bloody Western violence; a few gruesome images; occasional profanity and crass language. Might be okay for teens.