I just watched the new Cohen Brothers film True Grit…and loved it. A few weeks back I caught Burn After Reading and find the juxtaposition between these two films most interesting. In Burn After Reading we find the universe a random assortment of cause and effect. The result is a not particularly meaningful existence. Not particularly meaningful beyond the quirky idols each character holds onto for dear life as they follow the whims of their desire for acceptance. After watching True Grit I am wondering if the Cohen Brothers might be softening a bit in their assessment of the universe and the God who governs it. True Grit IS about the mystery of life under the sun. After all, Ecclesiastes is familiar territory for the Cohen Brothers. But in True Grit resolution and faith in the face of a tragic, and often violent world, are underscored as I dare say…the ultimate virtue. As Stanley Fish has noted in his insightful Op-Ed, the characters in True Grit populate a level playing field in terms of their ability to act virtuously. We do not find the John Wayne inspired moral heroism of the original. Virtue is found within both the “good” and “bad” characters. True Grit presents a more authentic vision of human nature as ugly, but struggling for redemption and capable of true acts of love (Jeff Bridges final scene of sacrifice for the girl is a fine example of this).
The struggle and admittance of virtue and the good is present, the ability to live up to these demands is not. What this film ends up doing is subverting a Modern narrative in which violence is baptized because of the good intentions behind the violent action. The old, “…ends justify the means” that plays so heavy within the American Western tradition (if you doubt that then re-watch an old episode of Bonanza sometime). In this re-telling of True Grit violence is just violence. Killing in the name of the law is not protected as a virtue because of the intentions behind the killing. I think that is part of the reason that violent acts within Cohen Brother films become so powerful in the mind of the viewer. Who can forget Fargo or the death of Brad Pitt in Burn without Reading. Violence is truly portrayed as senseless, and I think that that is a good thing.
The young Protestant protagonist asserts from the outset of the movie that, “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” This is indeed the thesis of True Grit according to the Cohen Brothers. Life is painful, God is mysterious, but it is OK to be resolute in faith. It may, in fact, be the only way to live. With this in mind, I found the soundtrack of the film to be very interesting indeed. The only melodies within the film consisted in the refrain and re-stating of three Protestant hymns hailing from the late 19th century: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.” In the midst of a few others, these three played the most prominent in the weaving of the narrative, with “Leaning on the Everlasting arms” used most powerfully on a subversive level during key moments in the storyline. Again, re-enforcing the thesis and acting as a kind of goad to those who would consider this present life, “…safe and secure.” Sober yet deeply reassuring. The music within the context of True Grit reminding us that, “Time is filled with swift transition, Naught of earth unmoved can stand.”