“There is nothing free in this world, except the grace of God.” Mattie Ross
“But the free gift is not like the trespass.” Paul the Apostle
In his review of Kevin Costner’s Open Range, Roger Ebert wrote, “The underlying text of most classic Westerns is from the Bible: ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?’”
Ebert was referring to the values that drive the heroes of such classics as High Noon, Shane, and True Grit. Though his darlin’ might forsake him for going up against Frank Miller, Will Kane had to wear that badge a little while longer. Though it meant exile from love and light, Shane buckled his gun belt on once more. And, though the journey was long and fraught with peril, young Mattie Ross did not flinch from her duty to find her father’s killer and make him pay. There might be greater ease and comfort in Yell County, Arkansas, with her grieving mother and brother, but what cost to her soul?
In this regard, Mattie, one of the more unlikely and engaging Western heroes, fits in neatly with her male counterparts—and their eye-for-an-eye view of justice. In the original film version of True Grit, Kim Darby convincingly conveyed the flint-eyed determination of a girl as certain of her own righteousness as that of her cause.
Thirteen-year-old Hailee Steinfeld is even more convincing than her twenty-year-old counterpart. In fact, there’s something a bit eerie, a little frightening, in her smooth, unlined face. She’s out for blood, not for law. Yet the Coen brothers’ remake adds a dimension to her story I didn’t expect, from a biblical text Roger Ebert never thought of—the free gift of grace.
But then, grace always comes as surprise. In this film, it sneaked up on me as stealthily as a thief in the night. Speaking of night, or, more properly, darkness, that’s one big difference between the 1969 version and the Coens’. I haven’t watched the original for a while; there are probably as many nighttime scenes in it as in this one. Yet the landscapes seem darker here, more foreboding.
The original version was shot in the glory of sunlit Colorado. The Coens filmed in Texas amid harsher scenery. The rooms, such as Judge Parker’s courtroom, are dimly lit, befogged with pipe and cigar smoke. The faces aren’t as handsome, as “Hollywood,” as those used by director Henry Hathaway, but darkened with age and dirt. Though Jeff Bridges is a couple years younger than John Wayne was when he played the grizzled Marshal Cogburn, he looks the worse for wear. All of this conveys an atmosphere of dreariness, the cloudy sky that often darkens life as we know it, the drizzle in the human soul.
So where does grace come in? We’re getting to that. First, though, let’s have a bit of plot and character.
As in Charles Portis’s novel and the ’69 movie, Mattie searches for a man with “true grit” to help her find Tom Chaney, who murdered her papa. She finds him in the “notorious thumper,” federal marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. Being approached, let alone hired, by a mere girl is the last thing Cogburn expects; yet, short of cash and long on disbelief, he allows himself to be drawn into her scheme.
Jeff Bridges plays Rooster as a boozy, gravel-voiced, garrulous fool who’s tried—and mostly failed—at everything in life. What’s one more mistake (not to say, sin), taking a foolish young girl into the wild to satisfy her bloodlust? Along the way, they gain, lose, and gain again an ally in the blustering Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf. Matt Damon takes the role away from Glen Campbell with the greatest of ease, turning LaBoeuf into an endearing, resonant mixture of clown and knight.
Bickering and bargaining their way into the badlands, the trio enter a world as reminiscent of Wonderland as the Old West. They encounter stupidity, cruelty, and some things that just have to be seen to be believed (the scene with the “Bear Man” is almost worth the price of admission). The pathos they meet, and display, is leavened with humor. Some have criticized the film for being slow, and, in contrast, to John Wayne’s adventure, I guess it is. But, as a lady once told a harried, laptop-pecking Max Lucado on an airplane, “You need to relax, boy. Put that machine up and enjoy the journey.” It’s the wilderness journey of Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf that drew me deeply into this film.
Oh, and also that grace thing I mentioned—though I didn’t realize what it was until afterwards.
With the trail cold and the rain falling, the trio despairs of finding Tom Chaney. Rooster’s at his drunken worst. LaBeouf’s bailing out. Mattie is at her wits’ end. And then, quite by accident, she meets the man she came to kill. If you haven’t seen either version of TG, I don’t wish to spoil the show, but without telling you too much, the recurring motif is help from above.
The climactic scene wherein Rooster faces Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang was thrilling when John Wayne played the part. It's just as exhilarating here, but even more so for me because I found in its aftermath that added ingredient of grace. In keeping with the rest of the movie, this scene moves more slowly than its counterpart, but here the slowness really pays off. The help Rooster so desperately needs takes its time in coming—time in which I was able to see what I hadn’t seen while watching the Duke’s movie: the help that comes from above.
So it is with Mattie. Having made headstrong choice after headstrong choice, having traded mercy for vengeance, she finds herself in deadly straits—only to be surprised by the same kind of help. Again and again, it comes from above. Throughout the movie, we’ve heard variations on that lovely old gospel tune, “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.” As resourceful and independent as Mattie is, she too is mortal and liable to the same fate she wishes on Chaney (a fine, if underused Josh Brolin). Again and again, she skates dangerously close to the edge. Again and again, help comes to her from above. Through Mattie’s new and overwhelming dependence, through the sacrifice of others, in the weary arms that carry her in agony through her darkest night to the light of hope, grace reaches its quiet, powerful fruition.
The film’s ending makes me wonder whether Mattie truly realized the gift she’d been given, its larger implications for her life. But then, that’s the way we all are, aren’t we? Presbyterians and Campbellites, good and bad, believers and unbelievers alike—all of us miss the obvious. It’s so easy to reap the benefits of grace and never think of, let alone thank, our Benefactor.
I can still enjoy the Duke in the old version. He deserved his Oscar. His movie was good (before I forget, I sorely missed Strother Martin as the horse trader Stonehill, the sharpie who meets his match in Mattie), but, verily, this version surpasses it—as the free gift of God must always outmatch the trespass. I’m glad to have found grace again where it invariably hides, in an unlikely place; in this case, a down-and-dirty, bloody and sweaty, sweet and glorious Western.
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