by Brent Dickman, Master of Divinity Student
True Grit – the Oscar-nominated film that occupied my thoughts for days after viewing. By the Coen brothers, it is based on a 1968 novel by the same name that was made famous in 1969 when it was turned into a feature film starring John Wayne. The Duke (Wayne) would win his first and only Oscar that year for his performance. The new film by the Joel and Ethan Coen strives to be more true to the original work, while undoubtedly drawing much visual and cinematic inspiration from the earlier movie.
The film has been a hit with both audiences and critics but surprisingly very little has been said about the film’s deeply religious aspects. Even Christianity Today failed to reflect on such themes. Yes, the film does treat standard Western themes just as death, justice, friendship, and issues of gender. But, as Stanley Fish, writing for the New York Times, so succinctly considers, it is about so much more than that.
True Grit is a deeply theological film. Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are bold as a lion”) opens the film and sounds of hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” comprise the soundtrack. It is, as Fish rightly points out, a film about God’s grace. But it isn’t a Sunday School lesson. It’s a Coen brother’s film. And that is what makes it so fascinating.
The Coen’s are Hollywood’s masters of the darkly comedic. They put amusing characters into grisly situations that if less comedic would seem appalling. (One need look no further than the woodchipper in Fargo or the meeting of Brad Pitt and George Clooney in Burn After Reading). True Grit is no different. It uses its humor to examine the absurdity and incongruity that exists between what we expect in life (justice, fairness) and what we so often get (injustice, unfairness).
In such an incongruous and, in its way, comically absurd world, what does it mean to believe in a God who is just, sovereign, and full of grace and mercy? True Grit examines the life of Christian faith from the eyes of a fourteen-year-old Presbyterian female from the Old West, Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld).
So what is it trying to say? Well, honestly I am still trying to figure that out. Fish, commenting in his review, sees the Coen-made world of True Grit to be one where God’s grace, in Calvinist fashion, is given or withheld according to his mysterious and sovereign will. Which means that it is neither given to all nor given according to an individual’s merit. The “comical absurdity” of such a world is that justice and judgment, salvation and damnation, are, to quote Fish, “distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.”
You will have to decide for yourself whether or not the film stands in praise, judgment, or some sort of indifference to this theology. Have the Coen’s created a nihilistic world and filled it with a teenage Calvinist for us to both laugh at, because of her naïveté, and to admire, because of the strength of her faith and convictions? Or have they created a world were Calvinism is undeniably correct in order to reveal the sort of heroic faith that is necessary whenever we trust in God and stand up to sin and injustice? Is it possible that they are laughing at Calvinism even as they are admiring it? I have no doubt that repeated viewings will help bring it all into focus, but until then I would love to hear what other people who may have seen the film have to say about these themes.