How is it that two Jewish boys, Joel and Ethan Coen, are making the most Christian themed movies of the decade? Their Oscar winning “No Country For Old Men” was a manifesto about evil, our role in fighting it, and God’s part in the whole affair. “A Serious Man,” a movie equally about being a Midwestern Jew in the 1970s and the questions we ask of God, drew on the Biblical Book of Job, a common Jewish and Christian heritage. Their new offering “True Grit” is less intense than either previous movie, but still happens within a framework of 1880s Western frontier mores and within the time’s unique brand of Christian thought.
The movie opens with a quote from the Book of Proverbs, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” The quote goes on in the Bible, but not in the film, to say “but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” This quotation defines the character of Mattie Ross. “You have to pay for everything in this life,” she says, “there is nothing free, except the grace of God.”
Mattie, more composed and iron-willed at fourteen than many at forty, comes to a rugged Western town to see to the affairs of her murdered father. She ships his body home, arranges for the sale or return of his property, and checks on the price of his cotton. For Mattie, however, the matter isn’t settled until she sees his murderer hang. He must pay for what he has done.
The man, a desperado named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) is rumored to have fled into the Indian Territory and joined with a band of outlaws there. Mattie tracks down a US Marshall, a drunken, slovenly agent of the law with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. His name is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and he doesn’t believe in “religion, fairy tales, or stories about money,” but when the girl produces some greenbacks, he agrees to take on her case.
They have competition. A Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) has been tracking Chaney since he killed a State Senator’s dog – and then the State Senator – in Texas. He’s a bit too proud of his Ranger badge and not about to let a little girl slow him down, but Mattie proves she’s determined to see the matter through. The three unlikely companions set out on the outlaws’ trail.
The Coen brothers are known for meticulously recreating not only the setting of a time period, but the language, feel, and general ethos of the time. When Mattie arrives in the painstakingly recreated frontier town, a hanging of three convicted men is underway. One weeps loudly for his sins, one remains apologetic. The third, an Indian, is not allowed to speak. Mattie spends her first night in the mortuary, not as horrible to her as it would be to us. Mortality surely was before the frontier people in a way it isn’t for us.
The dialogue is finely crafted. Each character, no matter how desperate or common, speaks with no contractions. If feels awkward at first, but becomes amazingly real. On the trail, they meet a peddler wearing a bear skin who speaks so slowly and rollingly that it’s almost annoying. What do you expect a man who spent the vast majority of time with only his own company to talk like? A New Yorker of 2010?
This all sounds heavy and burdensome, but the film is much lighter than previous offerings. There is none of the intense violence of “No Country For Old Men.” Moments of violence happen, but they are more in tune with old Westerns than modern violence. Indeed, “True Grit” is a remake of a beloved John Wayne movie. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of western violence and disturbing images. Most of these images are dead bodies, strung up in trees or slung across a horse’s back. The film is appropriate for teenagers, with no sensual content and little profanity.
There are also moments of levity, mostly from the precocious and determined character of Mattie as she barters for horses, bends men twice her age to her will, and doggedly pursues her ends. She’s not about to let such trivial matters as age, gender, or lack of experience sway her from her righteous goal.
In the end, the film becomes a love story, and not in a creepy way. Jeff Bridges plays his role with slurring, growling proclamations and thorny determination to bring justice to those who have it coming. His god is money and drink, but he comes to a willingness to go the extra mile, literally, for the little girl. Damon, for his part, puffs up like a prancing rooster, but finds his swagger shown up by a child with grit. To his credit, he becomes a better man for knowing Mattie. Both Bridges and Damon give excellent performances, but Hailee Steinfeld shines as Mattie.
It’s a great film, one of the five best of the year. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Enjoy!
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