Sunday, January 02, 2011

True Grit

"The wicked flee when none pursueth." Proverbs 28:1

This Scriptural quote, taken from the Book of Proverbs, is among the first images seen in this newest version of the classic Western True Grit. It stands, then, as the directors' challenge - to the characters, to the story, and to the audience in the theatre - for what is to come.

The direction of this film is relatively simple: in the year 1877, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage girl from Arkansas, sets out to bring her father's killer, a renegade named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), to justice.

To accomplish this, she hires a merciless federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), to track down the murderer. A Texas ranger by the name of La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who is also on Chaney's trail, also accompanies Mattie and Rooster on their manhunt through the wilderness. Neither man likes the idea of traveling with a teenage girl, but after showing her determination and intelligence, Rooster and La Boeuf reluctantly agree to her companionship.

What Mattie believes about this journey is summed up in that basic proverb: "The wicked flee when none pursueth." (Prov. 28:1)

She is disgusted with the prospect that someone who hurt her and her family might never face justice - simply because no one bothered to pursue the case. Mattie's family is not considered special and her father's death is just one of many in the Old West. And even if Chaney is caught for other crimes, will anyone remember her family and the horrible loss they endured?

And so Mattie must conjure up true grit and find others who possess true grit - in other words, a firm resolve to push forward despite fear, retribution, inability, or the dangers that await.

In our own day, in some respects, things haven't changed much since the Old West.

The wicked still run free, especially when they hurt the marginalized members of our society: the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the young, the old, the underemployed, the uneducated, the citizens of second and third world nations, the handicapped, and so many other people who are easily forgotten.

Who has the true grit to stand for them?

At the start of the film, Rooster and La Boeuf are willing to stand up for those with money and power (in the form of paying customers and state senators), but are reluctant to stand for the plight of a poor Arkansas family. In our day, who stands for people like Mattie's family?

From large social groups like the unemployed and victims of bigotry to people in our own lives (our families, our workplaces, our classrooms, and our neighborhoods) who go ignored, there are many opportunities that God gives us to show our true grit. From a person stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire to the children suffering abuse and pedophilia, we are confronted with great opportuities to exhibit our true grit.

So do we show it? Do we take a stand? Do we make a difference and build up our resolve to help the victimized, bring about social justice, and defend those who are beaten down?

Or do we ignore the problems? Do we hope that someone else might do it for us? Do we turn our faces away from social problems - and never even admit or confess these sins - and then never make a resolution to do better?

The characters of True Grit, and the lack thereof, are also a challenge for us:

It is understandable that little Mattie had true grit to stand for justice - for it was her own family that suffered most. Likewise, those who are hurt are called to work to bring about justice for their situtation and those in similar circumstances.

The two officers, Rooster and La Boeuf, were also called upon to stand up for justice - it is, in a sense, their job to provide for public safety and stand up against crime. Likewise, public officials and society's teachers and leaders (including those in religious contexts like the Church) are called on to use their authority to bring about social justice for those in their care.

But who was missing in this mix? Which characters are absent from the crusade? It is those average, ordinary people in the background who shy away from such an adventure. In the Old West, the wicked were allowed to run free because the general population was afraid or preferred to stay clear of the fray. In our own times, the wicked are still allowed to run free because of the inactivity of regular folks like us.

Our faith compels us to move away from the sidelines and conjure up true grit. Our faith implores us to stand firm with one another in the fight for the defenseless and the persecuted. Our faith demands of us to take action for the sake of justice.

Let us ask ourselves: where are the wicked running free in our lives? Is it in the political and cultural landscape - or closer to home - in our offices, in our churches, in our schools, in our very own backyards? And then let us pray that God might give us the courage and the true grit to do something about it, lest the wicked continue to run free while we do nothing to stop it.


Anonymous said...

really enjoyed your insights. thank you!

Martin Leaf said...

With all due respect, I think the movie is the opposite. I think it shows the danger of retribution and exacting personal revenge. The snake bit Mattie, after she fell into a dark cave, after she shot her dad's killer.

Because of that she ended up a spinster, no kids, no husband, only one arm, like rooster's one eye, and we see a wilted tree of knowledge next to her in the end.

Jesus warned against such obsession when he said "He who is without sin, cast the first stone"

The movie is a warning about such obsessive vengence and retribution, especially as exhibited today in say Iran and Saudi Arabia (stoning, beheading, and limb chopping for theft).

The hypertechnical legal objections at the trial was representative of Jesus and the Senhedrin (technical law versus justice).

Anonymous said...

I guess you may want to put a twitter button to your website. Just bookmarked the site, but I had to complete this manually. Just my $.02 :)

Joshua said...

I saw the film for the first time last evening, and the Proverbs quote colored the whole thing for me. Thanks so much for your commentary.

I will say that I disagree with Martin, though; I do not believe that Mattie's spinsterhood--which she says she chooses--is a punishment. She seems to be doing just fine on her own.

roxythekiller said...

In response to Joshua and Martin Leaf... Mattie chose spinsterhood, but she did not choose to lose an eye or her beloved horse. Those were the costs and consequences of her choice to not just seek vengeance (and not just justice--- she insisted on shooting the man who killed her father, not on bringing him to court!)

Therefore, I see 4 themes in the film:
1. The "danger of retribution"/dark cost of personal revenge
2. The impact injustice has beyond its immediate victim. Mattie and her family were also victims of her father's death, and how a murder can affect the living more than the dead.
3. The "cost" of retribution. Like the old Chinese proverb about vengeance "digging two graves" (which may have been referenced in the snake pit scene)
4. The question of who is in a position to seek and demand justice. Anyone remember the scene with the Native American children? Mattie is in a privileged position to seek vengeance (she has wits, race, connections, and money at her disposal.)

Like many quality Western films (not spaghetti Westerns), True Grit has a lot in common with films about the Holocaust and pogroms (and uses their themes.) The negative references to fire throughout the film are a nod to pogrom imagery (fire, be it literal fire or gunfire, is depicted as a destructive agent. Even the campfire scene is tense and uncomfortable. The cold, however, is not... it preserves the dead and is where the protagonists meet a medicine man who probably later saves Hattie's life.)

True Grit raises classical questions found in many Holocaust-related films, such as "where do you search for justice (God on Trial), how far can you go to attain it (Gloomy Sunday, Walk on Water), and is there such a thing as going too far (i.e. Walk on Water, Inglourious Basterds, Hannibal Rising)?

Many films dealing with the Holocaust also stress how even a single person's death has a ripple effect on those around the person, and how the past bleeds into the present.

In that light, True Grit is more than a story about obtaining justice or getting revenge--- it's a story about what justice (and injustice) are truly worth.

BrookeP said...

What I thought was interesting is the song that played throughout the movie was "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Mattie lost her arm, so whose was she leaning on? Also the other comments are particularly interesting because the Coen/Cohen brothers are undoubtedly Jewish. Not just a little bit either. A test that is used to suggest Jewish ancestry from Moses’ brother Aaron is called the Cohen Modal haplotype. I almost always find a deep spiritual message in their movies. Perhaps they are accomplishing much with their unrivaled talents and efforts.