The Cohen Bros. remake of the John Wayne classic shows an unexpected respect of faith and virtue.
“They tell me you’re a man with ‘true grit’.” It is with these words that quick thinking and smart, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (an extraordinary performance by Hailee Steinfeld) introduces herself to U.S. Marshall, Rooster Cogburn (originally John Wayne, but given new life by Jeff Bridges). So begins her journey as she seeks to bring justice for her father, who was mercilessly killed by a lawless vagabond named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who then fled into the Indian Territory of Arkansas. After being cheated by the undertaker and then told by the local sheriff that no one will pursue the criminal, Mattie quickly earns enough money to hire a U.S. Marshall to go after him, which – and this is crucial – is within the bounds of the law. The man she picks is the much-diminished Cogburn. He reluctantly agrees to set out to find Chaney, and though he doesn’t want her along, Mattie insists that she go to see that she isn’t robbed of the $50 she paid, and that Chaney will be brought back alive to stand trial. Add to their posse, a slightly arrogant Texas Ranger by the name of LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) and you have the makings of one wild ride!
I have to admit, I was skeptical as I went to see “True Grit” in theaters. The most recent film by the writing/directing team of the Cohen Brothers, – the makers of such films as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, and No Country for Old Men – was a pleasant surprise. This movie is predominantly about justice and, for the most part, it adheres to its thesis. But the heart of the film is also the way a young girl, who was raised in a Christian home, influences the lives of the rough and rugged Marshall and Ranger. The Cohen Brothers didn’t aim at making her a typical 21st Century teen so that she’d be “relatable”; instead they made Mattie a winsome and engaging character – of which her Christianity plays no small role. Though her Faith isn’t spotlighted throughout the whole film, at the opening of the movie, before the title comes up, we hear an older Mattie talk of how Chaney couldn’t run away from God’s Justice, “… he thought he’d got away scot-free, but he soon found that the only thing free in this world is the grace of God.” The old 19th Century hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays through the course of the movie’s soundtrack, and even the film’s trailer carries the idea of the inevitability of justice, as we hear the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”. As Mattie goes into the uncharted lands of the law-breaker, she never sinks to their level. At one point in the film she gets angry with Cogburn for shooting at their quarry from a long distance and under cover; this, she says, is cowardly.
There are some negative elements to the film, however, and we do need to note them, or else we risk forgetting that they are negative at all. One potentially harmful element in the film is the violence. Cogburn has been in the business of tracking criminals for so long he has become callous and indifferent toward killing – it’s part of the job. Mattie takes it bravely, but is greatly affected by the trail of bodies that they leave in their wake. Still, what is a Western without a few good showdowns and shoot-‘em-ups? At one point in the film, Cogburn discloses to Mattie that he has been divorced three different times, (something that is unlikely to have happened in the 1800’s even with the likes of Cogburn). Jeff Bridges takes the Lord’s name once, which, though extremely unfortunate, is a huge improvement from the Brother’s other films in which taking God’s name in vain is prevalent. Mattie, though a delightful girl, demonstrates an almost superior attitude when talking of her grieving mother who, in her opinion, couldn’t write her own name. There are several jokes in the film that are racial slights against the Indian people. Sure, there was prejudice in those times, but in this film it seems derisive and completely unnecessary to the rest of the film. The Cohen Brothers give the impression that they enjoy being flippant, casual and insouciant when it comes to violence: we see three men publicly hung with an uncomfortable apathy, and later, a man gets his fingers chopped off by a large knife. Cogburn also proves himself to be coward and a drunk; he drinks himself into a stupor and leaves Mattie to be captured by her father’s killer. But, her influence upon Leboeuf, and especially Cogburn is what this film is about. Mattie’s righteous zeal and relentless courage end up changing these men for the better, so they become more then just men of “true grit”, but are real heroes!
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
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