Wednesday, January 05, 2011

They just don't get it -- the theology of True Grit, recoil and the mark of Cain

Hollywood just seems stunned by the Coen brothers' True Grit. The movie reviewers all seem to know they like it, but they seem struck dumb as to why they like it. And, as this story from today's New York Times expresses, they can't quite get why the public seems to like the movie more than the reviewers do. In their reviews, the movie pundits seem somehow tentative, as if they are wondering if the Coen's are putting some joke over on them and they're afraid they're the only ones who don't get it.

Well, they don't get something, but it's not some joke that the Coens are putting on. What they're not getting is the religious and spiritual nature of this movie. They think, the Coen's are so dark -- so how could they be doing something to do with faith?!

But a deep faith does not have to mean seeing the world through some kind of rose-colored glasses. Real faith -- as those of us who have worked the halls of hospitals as chaplains know so well -- can mean a willingness to be able to admit to just how terrible and unjust a suffering person's situation might be. True faith might mean maintaining a belief in God's incredible goodness and healing power even in the face of profound injustice in the world. And true faith might also mean -- as it does for Mattie, the main character of True Grit -- choosing to take action in the face of injustice. For Mattie, the injustice of her father's senseless murder is a call to try and restore what justice can be restored. In a sense, she is following in her father's footsteps -- the father, who, in her words, was acting as his "brother's keeper" when he tried, with no gun of his own, to talk his drunken, rifle-toting tenant out of foolishly confronting others with violence -- when she chooses to be her father's keeper, by pursuing justice from the tenant who murdered him.

The Coens -- like the original novel that they follow more closely than the original film that featured John Wayne -- adore the 14-year old Mattie as this kind of courageous, faith-motivated Angel of Justice. She, not the Rooster Cogburn character that so dominated the original movie, is the center of this film. It is not the first time the Coens have so adored a gun-toting, justice-seeking woman in one of their films -- the sheriff Margie in Fargo acts as a kind of glowing, compassionate corrective to the bleak landscape of cold snow and killers around her.

But there is a profound difference between Mattie and Margie. Mattie is not just pursuing justice, but also revenge from someone who personally wronged her -- pursuing it with violence. Cogburn warns her of the implications of using violence when she shows him the giant pistol she inherited from her father -- he warns her about the "recoil".

And it is recoil (spoiler alert!) that nearly kills her at the end of the movie. As she triumphantly kills her father's murderer with a rifle shot, she is surprised by the rifle's recoil and falls into a pit full of snakes, one of which bites her, nearly fatally and at the cost of her arm.

In a story so full of biblical imagery and passages, we should not ignore the significance of the snake, the very animal that stole our innocence in the garden of eden story. Mattie literally makes a "fall" here. This fall -- this loss of innocence -- comes from her choice to use deadly force. The very same deadly force used by her father's murderer -- the murderer who walked the earth with a dark mark on his forehead, a literal "mark of Cain" branding him, the man who would kill his "brother" rather than keep him.

True Grit is really about us -- us Americans. It honors our love of faith, a love that seems unique in the contemporary Western World, and how it can bring out the very best in us. But it is also a warning, a warning that our sense of righteousness can also lead us into temptation -- the temptation to kill rather than love. After all, it is up to us to decide whether this world will be one of love, or one of violence.


By the way, one of the best things I have read about True Grit is this column by Stanley Fish. He, also, seems a bit confused by True Grit and its religious nature. But, in the final paragraphs, he shows he does recognize it for what it is

I wrote briefly about True Grit before. There's a link in that blog post to an NPR story about the novel that also has an excerpt from its opening pages -- worth reading! (As is the novel.)

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