Excerpted from True Grit and the Grace of God
by Steven D. Greydanus
National Catholic Register, Dec 29 2010
“There is no law west of St. Louis,” a popular saying had it over a century ago, “and no God west of Fort Smith.” It is a verdict one would be not at all surprised to find confirmed in a Coen brothers film set in the time and place in question—even if by then a semblance of law had come to Fort Smith in the person of reputed “hanging judge” Isaac Parker. In fact, one could easily imagine the Coens being drawn to such a setting precisely for those qualities of lawlessness and godlessness.
In 14-year-old Mattie Ross, though, the Coens have a protagonist whose adamantine sense of purpose defies both halves of that 19th-century aphorism. Arriving in Fort Smith to identify the body of her slain father, Mattie is single-minded in her determination to see justice done for her father’s murder. She has a good lawyer whose name she deploys to considerable effect, she knows the difference between malum prohibitum and malum in se, and she is confident that Providence is with her.
“My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was,” she resolves, quoting the 23rd psalm (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”). “The Author of all things watches over me,” she concludes, “and I have a good horse.” About the horse, she is unquestionably right. As for the Author of all things, squint though I may, I cannot see that even the Coens necessarily dissent. . . .
The Coens’ film is franker than its predecessor about the violence of the old West and of Portis’s book; it is also franker about the religiosity, from frequent scriptural references to a score shot through with hymnody (mostly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” but also “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “The Glory-Land Way” and others). The film opens with an epigram from Proverbs (“The wicked flee when none pursueth”), and in the first-act public hanging one of the condemned men earnestly urges onlookers to “train up your children in the way that they should go” and avoid a similar fate. But the next condemned man is defiant—“I see men out there in that crowd worse than me”—and the thoughts of the third man, alas, are lost forever.
Is there justice? Does the Author of all things see? In an opening monologue Mattie declares: “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.” Chaney pays for his crime—and Mattie pays for her vengeance, in one and the same act. Significantly, the Coens depart from source here, and there is no mistaking the moral rigor of cause and effect in this reworking.
There is justice, but there is also grace, if we choose to see it, in the same scene, in a whispered two-word prayer and the pull of another trigger—an impossible shot that winds up saving two lives, including Mattie’s. And there is grace, too, in Rooster’s finest moment, in which he comes to the end of himself, and finds that there is more there than we might have thought.
Following Steven's review, reader Nick Milne posts a fascinating response to one or two details.
> ...and the thoughts of the third man, alas, are lost forever.
It’s odd, about that. I don’t recall what they did with it in the 1969 film (if the hanging scene was even included - if it was, I don’t remember it), but in the novel the Indian who is about to be hanged does not have his last words cut off as they are, so cruelly, in the Coens’ film. What happens is this:
“The Indian was next and he said, ‘I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man.’ If you are like me you probably think of Indians as heathens. But I will ask you to recall the thief on the cross. He was never baptized and never even heard of a catechism and yet Christ himself promised him a place in heaven.”
Another note that doesn’t make it into either film comes shortly thereafter, though its exclusion makes more sense given that it’s just some narrative speculation on Mattie’s part rather than something that actually happens in the events being described. Of Judge Parker, she declares that:
“His manner was grave. On his deathbed he asked for a priest and became a Catholic. That was his wife’s religion. It was his own business and none of mine. If you had sentenced one hundred and sixty men to death and seen around eighty of them swing, then maybe at the last minute you would feel the need of some stronger medicine than the Methodists could make. It is something to think about.”
In any event, a good review of a great movie. I look forward to seeing it again soon, and, if possible, watching it back-to-back with The Night of the Hunter, to which film it makes a startlingly compelling companion piece.