Vengeance is Mine saith the Lord
A Movie review of True Grit
Especially for my Friend Duncan
(Spoiler Alert - but you probably won’t be interested unless you’ve seen it)
It is not often that I go to see a movie twice in three days. Not often like maybe never. But this movie rattled so many of my doors that I had to go back and pay closer attention to why. Sure it had cowboys and I like cowboys. And horses, I like them even better. And a spunky gal - that’s always good, but that didn’t explain the fascination. Those Coen boys can’t seem to stay away from old timey Gospel stuff and Biblical references, I knew that. They Gospelled up Odysseus just fine. But that didn’t explain it either. I never saw the John Wayne version of the thing, so I had no dog in that fight. I watched it at the Saturday afternoon matinee expecting a good time, mind and heart. I did not expect that my soul would jump up, sit on the edge of the seat and steal all the popcorn.
The movie starts with silent opening credits and I counted it off at about 30 Quaker seconds. This of course made the audience uncomfortable and at one showing some wisenheimer had to break it. But it sets up a sub-theme of who speaks, who is silent, and who publishes truth.
After the silence you get a black screen with the scripture quote - the text for today’s message. Proverbs 28:1 “The wicked flee when no man pursueth. One of the things I presume about a Coen Brothers movie is that you may mid-rash to your heart’s content. Go as deep as you wish. The layers are there, they are intentional. So I feel perfectly safe in interpreting not just what they put up there, but what they left out - the second half of the verse - but the righteous are bold as a lion.” This movie is an exploration of who is wicked and who is righteous. It is also about the vengeance of God, the “B” side to God’s grace. God’s pure vengeance is played by 14 year old spunky gal Mattie Ross. She is on the path of her father’s murderer, and she will not be denied. It is she who sheds the light on the quick and the dead, showing their goodness or depravity. She herself is unstoppable. It is she who lays out the eternal paradox as narrator when she says that while the killer may have thought he got off scott free that there is “Nothing free in life except God’s grace.” Mattie’s theme music is the 1887 hymn “Everlasting Arms”
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
Mattie is pure of heart, unaffected by the proximity of death, knows no fear, and is bold as a lion.
The speaking truth about judgment theme continues as Mattie arrives in town just in time for a triple hanging. The three condemned men each have their say. The first tearfully blames his wickedness on others, lack of good training and drink. The second does not deny his sin but claims relative goodness, saying that he is no greater a sinner than many he sees before him. The third, an Indian, is hooded mid-sentence. He is allowed no voice. The three conditions of human kind it seems. Through poverty she ends up sleeping in the undertakers workshop in the presence of these three and says that she felt like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bone. The bones Ezekiel sees were resurrected. Prophet Mattie must produce a resurrection of her own.
The vengeance of God picks an unlikely handmaiden in Rooster Cogburn. She raises him from a drunken death. She says she picked him for his “true grit” but he is described to her as “pitiless, fear does not enter into his equation.” He is an irreverent drunk who states that he does not believe in “sermons, fairytales or tales about money.” Yet Cogburn is prone to long bouts of moral self-examination on the trail. Even he isn’t sure whether he belongs on Team Righteousness or Team wickedness. The two of them take up with a Texas Ranger who is bit of a dandy. Debauchery, Vanity and Wrath going out looking for Justice. The three of them fall into discussion of the finer points of law such as the difference between “malum prohibitum and malum in se,” things that are wrong because they are forbidden and things that are just Wrong. This is a very important point for Wrath to take up with Debauchery and Vanity. Would killing the killer be malum, or simply prohibitum?
The Bad guys are not all bad. One unlucky criminal is stabbed to death by his own partner, who is then dispatched by Cogburn. They dying man gets to be the voice of Grace. He asks Mattie to send word of his death to his brother, a Methodist circuit rider. Cogburn asks him if they should tell him that he took up thievery. “It does not matter, I will meet him later, walking in the streets of Glory.” And so the dying thief presumes paradise - it is an optimistic Gospel.
But things do not go according to plan. The trackers fail. The trail goes cold. Ambushes fall through, and eventually both Cogburn and the Ranger Le Beouf are ready to quit. Mattie tries to encourage them, shame them and beg them to no avail. When all is lost she finds the man by pure chance, or the hand of God, which ever you like. She is captured and rescued and takes a mortal wound, but not before she, herself, takes vengeance on her father’s killer. Her last word to him are “Stand up, Tom Cheney.” She calls his name to judgment and, as the Gospel says, his life was required of him that day. She makes several passes through the Valley of the Shadow of death, but shows no fear of Evil. She is eventually saved by deep sacrifice. Cogburn and LeBeouf are proven to be righteous.
Some people knock re-makes. But every good story is a re-make. Joel and Ethan Coen know this. There are only so many stories. The best of them are hard-wired into our souls. We could not stop telling them if we tried. Love trumps death. Truth will out. Sacrifice saves. Mercy and Justice are two sides of a coin. Redemption happens. Sin causes fear. Righteousness is unstoppable. Etc. etc. etc.
I believe in wrestling a blessing out every Biblical topic. True Grit rustled me a blessing out of Vengeance.
I am grateful for the excellence of our great storytellers. I heard the Coens on NPR. They state that they are non-observant and non-believing Jews. Couldn’t prove it by their work. Their name is Hebrew for Priest. Their name claims a genetic descendance from the Temple. Apparently you can take the Coen out of the temple but not the temple out of the Coen. Holiness persists unto many generations.
Now a request: Please, Ethan and Joel. I have been waiting for another famous supposed non-believer, Joss Whedon to do this, but you could do as well, maybe better. What you have done for fourteen year old girls and sixty year old drunks - this empowerment and redemption. Could you please do this for a menopausal woman? Please? If you need a story line, call me, we can talk.
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