Monday, February 07, 2011

TRUE GRIT | Cathleen Falsani

A look at True Grit, and thoughts about similarities between Rooster Cogburn and The Dude, led to Cathleen Falsani's essay on The Big Lebowski. Which in turn prompted a reply from godgrrl herself, and got me poking around her blog. She loves the Coen Brothers, so it's only natch she should have some interesting observations about True Grit. Full circle.
True Grit? True Grace.
by Cathleen Falsani (AKA godgrrl)
author of "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers"

. . . While it most assuredly would be a leap of faith to claim that Ethan Coen’s 1979 college study of Wittgenstein directly shaped the making of True Grit, hints of the philosopher’s take on religiosity float through the stellar film like tumbleweeds. “If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different,” Wittgenstein said. “It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.”

In the worlds created over the last quarter century by the brothers Coen, clearly the greatest good and highest moral value is that of decency. Their heroes are never perfect, but they are deeply decent folk.

The moral anchor of True Grit and the character who embodies Wittgenstein’s idea of helping-your-way-to-God is 14-year-old Maddie Ross, the precociously pious, profoundly Protestant daughter seeking to avenge the murder of her father by the sociopathic simpleton Tom Chaney. Maddie’s faith and sense of right-and-wrong are reminiscent of the Coen’s spiritual heroine Marge Gunderson  in Fargo. Young Maddie is the epitome of unspoiled decency.

Like Marge, Maddie steps into the midst of mayhem with the force of a giant, her morality as simple as it is immovable, and sets about trying to reestablish order from chaos. She enlists the help of Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)— a classic Coen antihero in the mold of Bridge’s indelible Dude character from their masterpiece, The Big Lebowski. . . .  Maddie has faith in the unlikely hero and his “true grit.” It’s more than a personality trait. With her simple yet epic faith, Maddie believes Cogburn is the man, no doubt sent by God, to help her achieve moral retribution for her father’s death.

Explicit religious and scripture references appear throughout True Grit as they have in past Coen films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink. Maddie quotes from the book of Psalms — Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will have no fear, for Thou art with me — an image that comes to fruition later in the film when she walks through a literal valley of death.  A soundtrack of traditional Protestant hymns, most notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” function as Maddie’s internal monologue (or, perhaps, her dialogue with God.)

While many will argue that God’s grace is notably absent elsewhere in the Coeniverse, it is powerfully present in True Grit. At the start of the film, Maddie says, with characteristic frankness, “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.”

As the plot unfolds, it is precisely true grace — deserved by none yet given freely to each — and not “true grit” that makes all the difference.
This is edited from a longer essay posted at Cathleen Falsani's blog "The Dude Abides." Just so you know, I didn't provide elipses (those sets of three little dots) every place where I trimmed stuff out of Cathleen's original piece: this is a blog post, not a dissertation. But do read the full piece, and check out the rest of God Girl's site.

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