The sixteenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
by guest writer Steven Fekete
A light in the distance. A man shot dead on a deserted street. A silhouetted figure rides off in the falling snow.
These are the images that the Coen brothers present as True Grit opens. The film is not so much a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, but a re-adaptation of Charles Porter’s incredible 1968 novel. It follows Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the deceased man, murdered by the coward Tom Chaney. Mattie seeks justice, and looks to find it in the fearless marshall that is Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).
From its first moments, the film beckons the viewer into a deeper experience than the average cowboy shoot-em-up. As we continue to move through our Lenten season, True Grit offers us a different look at the themes of justice, mercy, and the inevitability of death. In doing so, the film can offer us a meditation on the Jesus story and the journey of the cross.
Mattie brings a clear boldness, and indeed the titular grit, to the task of pursuing Tom Chaney. However, what she sees as bringing him to justice quickly reveals itself to be cold-blooded vengeance.
Mattie’s hyper-focus ultimately leads to her own murderous act. With Tom Chaney at gunpoint, she unleashes her justice and shoots him in the chest. Mattie’s vengeance throws her backward into a literal pit of snakes (yes, the biblical metaphor runs deep). In the depths, she is bit by a rattlesnake in the very hand that delivered her justice and loses the arm as a consequence.
As Mattie herself says in the introduction, “There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”
Beyond justice, True Grit offers a counterpoint to its brutality in the unlikeliest of characters, Rooster Cogburn. The bitter old one-eyed man is repeatedly shown throughout the film to be a broken and tragic figure. He is a drunkard, who shoots first, asks questions later, and cares more for money than people. And yet, in the midst of Mattie’s adventure in tragedy, it is Rooster who brings grace, mercy, and compassion.
Returning to the climax of the film, we find Mattie at her very lowest. She has lost her father, has given in to vengeance, and is now bitten in the pit of snakes. Into this darkness descends a figure, Rooster, who takes her in his arms and lifts her out of the pit and together they ride through into the night. When the animal can no longer ride, Rooster takes her again in his arms, and carries her the rest of the way to safety. Rooster Cogburn’s passion for justice (and money), in the end, is outweighed by his mercy for this young girl.
True Grit explores how we approach the reality of death. The film lives up to its name, bringing blood, brutality, and dirt; the ’grit’ of the greatest westerns. Moreover, it brings death in its many forms. A father betrayed and left dead in the street. The vengeful justice carried out by a grieving child. We are brought to the action of a shoot-out on horseback, and the near-death experience that Mattie ultimately has on her journey.
In its end, True Grit offers one final observation on death. Mattie, now 25 years older, arrives at a traveling show to learn that Rooster has recently died. She has her old friend transported to her family’s graveyard and buried alongside her father. In the final shots, Mattie stands over the headstone in black before gravely walking into the distance herself stating, “Time just gets away from us.”
Justice, grace, mercy, and death. These are some of the same themes we are asked to intentionally explore as we move through the season of Lent. We are reminded of Jesus’s own journey in the wilderness, as well as his path to the cross, the tomb, and, ultimately, to the mercy of the resurrection.
Further, through the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday and practices such as the meditation of Memento Mori (a Latin phrase meaning “Remember that you will die,”) we are reminded that we will all eventually return to the dust. It is as the poet, Billy Collins writes, “no one who ever breasted the waters of time has figured out a way to avoid dying.” In the remembrance of our own mortality, we can contemplate deeper how we approach this life and the lives of those around us.
Steven Fekete is a writer, speaker, and coach based in Los Angeles. His article: The Devil You Know: An Exploration of Virtual Religious Deconstruction Communities was published through the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture. His writing can be found on at https://feketesteve.medium.com/ and StevenFekete.com.