Please note I have amended my original review by adding the following email from a reader: “Dude, you put WAY too many spoilers in that review, without indicating ‘WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS!’ Many people will resent that. Just sayin’ . . .”
Now this film isn’t exactly “The Sixth Sense” but nonetheless you have been warned.
Now that the holiday rush has dissipated I finally went to see “True Grit”, a remake of the 1969 classic western by the great Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan). For the most part the film plays like a straight western, though there are a couple quirky Coen moments thrown in which appear like the blackened brand on the rump of a grazing steer. It’s always nice to find a director’s brand.
The film takes place in the fall of 1877 and tells the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old who is so clever that she’d leave Tom Sawyer holding the paint brush and so tough that she could take out Huck Finn with one arm tied behind her back (therein, dear reader, lies a veiled reference to events late in the film, and no there isn’t a Huck Finn cameo). Mattie’s father has just been killed by a hired hand and Mattie has been sent to identify the body and then, against her mother’s wishes (no surprise there!) to hunt down the killer. Yes, hunt down. Mattie is not content to hire a bounty hunter (though she does that). But she is determined to go along for the ride to ensure that her father and his killer both receive justice.
Here kudos go to young Elizabeth Marvel who is outstanding (I was going to say she’s a marvel but then I decided not to, except that I just did) in the role of Mattie. While Marvel’s performance is a real standout, that is to take nothing away from the rest of the stellar line up. Jeff Bridges is amazing as Rooster Cogburn, the bounty hunter Mattie hires to kill her father’s murderer. Matt Damon is also excellent as the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf and Josh Brolin shines like the mud-spattered spotlight on a red neck pickup as Tom Chaney, her father’s killer. (And let us not forget the underappreciated Barry Pepper who excels as Ned Pepper.)
All throughout the film Mattie is on a quest to see Chaney hanged. But not just hanged. She wants him hanged in Arkansas. And she wants him to know why. Mattie is driven not by a blind rage but rather by a desire for retributive justice distilled and poured with as much care as the best backwoods moonshine. She is a teenage embodiment of the Count of Monte Cristo’s maxim “revenge is a dish best served cold” except you can drop revenge and slot in retribution … or justice.
This clearly is a world of retribution, an eye for an eye. And in the end Mattie is the one who kills Tom Chaney with her own father’s gun. So where is the satisfaction from this exercise in just retribution? In a moment Chaney disappears over the cliff and just as quickly the recoil of the gun sends Mattie backwards and down into a cave. Inside the cave there is a corpse with a snake and in a moment Mattie is bitten. The irony is heavy given that the whole film they have been careful at night to protect the campsite from snakes. So why the bite and why now? And why does she lose an arm from the bite? And why do we keep hearing that old gospel hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”?
I am not sure whether the film is an unqualified indictment of retributive justice, but it certainly could be viewed that way. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Or it leaves one person over a cliff and another deep in a cave. As for the bite of the snake, is this an echo of the serpent in the garden? Did Mattie fall for the serpent’s call to play God by exercising retributive justice instead of forgiveness?
It seems to me that the film’s pivotal climax comes in the moment when Chaney and Mattie meet. After hunting him for days Mattie happens upon him at a river. It seems to me that the river is a profound clue here of another decision that Mattie could have made. Could it be that with both standing ankle deep in the water, this was the moment when she could have extended unmerited forgiveness instead of pursuing her quest for just payback? Wouldn’t you have loved to see Chaney’s face if she had declared “Tom Chaney, I came all this way to say I forgive you.”
Why the river and why restorative justice and forgiveness? Consider the opening verses of Revelation 22 which feature a very different Edenic image with a river but no serpent, and at last no retribution:
“And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
“In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
For the healing of the nations. For Mattie’s father. For Mattie herself. And yes, even for Tom Chaney.
[Correction: After I had originally posted this my friend Tim Wilson pointed out that I confused my Matties. The actress who played Mattie as a grown woman in the film was Elizabeth Marvel. The young Mattie, the really impressive newcomer, is named Hailee Steinfeld. Watch for her.]