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Intersection of Life and Faith

The True Meaning of True Grit

  • Cathleen Falsani
  • 2011 7 Jan
The True Meaning of <i>True Grit</i>

Nearly 30 years before brother-filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen released their new film "True Grit," the younger sibling, Ethan, wrote his senior thesis at Princeton on the works of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

One of Wittgenstein's major areas of philosophical concern was religion and religious ideas, including how people believe and express those beliefs in the way they define themselves and orient their lives.

While it would be a leap of faith to claim that the Wittgenstein thesis directly shaped the making of "True Grit," hints of the philosopher's take on religiosity float through the 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."

The Coens jointly directed and adapted the film for the big screen from its original source, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis (John Wayne won his only Oscar for his role in the 1969 film version). In the worlds created by the brothers Coen over the last quarter century, the greatest good and highest moral value is simple decency.

Their heroes are never perfect, but they are deeply decent. 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 (played by the remarkable newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, 13), the precociously pious, profoundly Protestant daughter seeking to avenge the murder of her father.

Maddie's faith and sense of right-and-wrong are reminiscent of the Coen's spiritual heroine Marge Gunderson (played by Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand) in "Fargo." Young Maddie is the epitome of unspoiled decency. "The whole Presbyterian-Protestant ethic in a 14-year-old girl was interesting to us and sounded fun," Ethan Coen told The New York Times.

Like Marge, Maddie steps into the midst of mayhem with the force of a giant. Her morality is as simple as it is immovable as she sets about trying to reestablish order from chaos. The young girl enlists the help of Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, who starred as "the Dude" in the Coen masterpiece, "The Big Lebowski.") Bridge's Cogburn is a broken, conflicted, morally complicated soul.

You can almost smell the odor of stale cigarettes, whiskey and despair emanating from the screen each time Cogburn appears. Yet, he triumphs, rising above seemingly insurmountable obstacles, not the least of which his self-imposed reprobation. 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.

"My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was," Maddie says early in the film. "The Author of all things watches over me ... and I have a good horse." Explicit religious and scripture references appear throughout "True Grit," just as they have been in past Coen films such as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Barton Fink." Maddie quotes from Psalm 23 about walking with faith through the valley of the shadow of death -- an image that comes to fruition later in the film when she walks through a literal valley of death.

As they have in many of their past films, the Coens also use the film's soundtrack to tell the story. In "True Grit," longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell has assembled a soundtrack of traditional Protestant hymns, most notably "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," that function as Maddie's internal monologue (or, perhaps, her dialogue with God.)

Religious and spiritual ideas are hardly new ground for the Coens. From their first film, 1984's "Blood Simple," to last year's "A Serious
," the Coens shrewdly engage serious existential and spiritual questions with great humor, a certain tenderness, and brutal honesty.

Each Coen film -- including their most whimsical comedies -- explores confounding spiritual and ethical quandaries. 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 true grace -- deserved by none yet given freely to each -- and not "true grit" that makes all the difference.

(Cathleen Falsani is the author of "Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace" and the recent book, "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.")