The Coens’ ‘True Grit’ a “truly religious movie”

Posted by · 9:16 am · December 30th, 2010

I gave the Coens’ “True Grit” another look last night with the family.  Hailee Steinfeld’s commanding presence alongside a scenery-chewing Jeff Bridges was as striking as ever.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say my biggest Oscar wish this year is that the Academy’s acting branch sees the performance for what it is: a leading lady showcase.  But we’ll just have to see.

As for the film, it’s as rich as ever and takes on more textures each time I give it another look.  I can easily see it ultimately being more of a fixture in my DVD player than most other 2010 entries, but it’s really the reverence for Charles Portis that continues to be so rewarding.  There is no question in my mind that the Coens found the thematic pulse of the material more absolutely than Henry Hathaway’s original hokey take.

Writing in The New York Times, literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish seems to be in total agreement.  And of all the items I’ve come across in response to the film these last few weeks, I’d have to say, for me, it has the most complete understanding of what’s lurking between the lines.

Calling the Coens’ take “that rare thing — a truly religious movie,” Fish shrewdly notes (SPOILERS):

…while the Coens deprive us of the heroism [Big Hollywood film critic Dan] Gagliasso and others look for, they give us a better heroism in the person of Mattie, who maintains the confidence of her convictions even when the world continues to provide no support for them. In the end, when she is a spinster with one arm who arrives too late to see Rooster once more, she remains as judgmental, single-minded and resolute as ever. She goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts. That is the message Iris Dement proclaims at the movie’s close when she sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”: “Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way / Leaning on the everlasting arms / Oh how bright the path goes from day to day / Leaning on the everlasting arms / What have I to dread what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

And indeed, it’s the theme of that hymn which carries the bulk of the score throughout.  I’d call that graph the thesis of Fish’s argument, but the buttressing makes for a must-read, so head on over and dig in for yourself.  I think you’ll find it tough to argue with the backbone of his take, whether you think the film a quality work or not.

[Photo: Paramount Pictures]

→ 11 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

11 responses so far

  • 1 12-30-2010 at 10:39 am

    Silencio said...

    To me it was more a vengeance film, which some certainly could still compare to religious violence, so that’s fine. His interpretation of the pit from a religious standpoint, saying that there’s always a pit somewhere, is interesting. But I still see it as the psychological (and spiritual) shift she made irrevocably with the consummation of her vengeance. And I really think that if she could have had her story conclude another way, she wouldn’t. But hey, maybe that’s religion as well.

  • 2 12-30-2010 at 11:11 am

    Fitz said...

    I like the spiritual link between this, NCFOM, and A Serious Man. Each film, at some point, elaborates that regardless of our actions that we face larger consequences (good or bad).

  • 3 12-30-2010 at 11:11 am

    Speaking English said...

    It’s interesting, because while watching this film it feels nothing like a Coen brothers film. At least the first time. But when you stop to think about it, it has many of the same thematic intricacies understated subtexts present in their other, more typically “Coen” films. I still don’t rank this one near the top, but it’s an effort well done.

  • 4 12-30-2010 at 11:21 am

    Speaking English said...

    *thematic intricacies AND understated subtexts*

  • 5 12-30-2010 at 4:31 pm

    Duncan Houst said...

    I feel like Steinfeld has a better chance playing it safe in the supporting actress race.

  • 6 12-30-2010 at 10:01 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ Duncan: Safe, but not fair. What pisses me off more than anything about this “Steinfeld in supporting” nonsense is that it is *so* unfair to the actresses who actually had to make an impression with only a few scenes. Jacki Weaver, Ann Guilbert, Dale Dickey, Olivia Williams and many other excellent performers are either struggling to stay in the Oscar discussion or are absent entirely…all to kid ourselves into thinking that someone deserves to be considered “supporting” when she’s in nearly every scene and the entire story is about her.

    If you think she’s one of the five best leading performances of the year, great! Nominate her! If not, sorry, “demoting” Steinfeld to a supporting category is nothing more than blatant dishonesty.

  • 7 12-30-2010 at 11:35 pm

    Andy Kahn said...

    Not sure where all the love is coming from. People seem to blindly fall into amore every time the Coens breathe.

  • 8 12-31-2010 at 6:34 am

    JJ1 said...

    Nice that my entire post was just deleted. Great job, JJ.

    The gist of my post:
    In a year with stronger buzzed Supporting women, I think Steinfeld would miss both Lead and Supporting (with all the split voting).

    But because this year’s buzzed women are only Adams, Leo, HBC, Kunis, Weaver, & Steinfeld … she has an easier route to a nom, at all; and that would be Supporting. Doesn’t mean it’s right. I think it sucks. But that’s how it is.

    As of now, I’m of the opinion that if she’s loved as much as we think she is, she’s IN in Supporting; voters want to make sure she’s nominated.

    If she’s not AS loved, she’s that 6th person because of the vote splitting, or there’s more love for the other 5 women than we thought.

  • 9 12-31-2010 at 7:09 am

    austin111 said...

    True Grit is just an amazing film. Steinfield is incredible in what is undoubtedly a very tricky role. She could easily have come across as too cute or sentimentalized to be taken seriously, and yet she pulls it off. We really believe this is a plucky, spirited, incredibly smart young woman and she sneaks up on your heart as things move along. She’s the one with the true grit here. Second only to Natalie Portman, who in her younger days could have also played this role convincingly, I think this is the other best female performance I’ve seen this year. I was surprised by how much I liked the film to be honest. I wasn’t expecting it to play out so well. There is a wonderful near apocalyptic moment near the end, represented by the horse, that I won’t forget any too soon. It really is a near religious experience to watch this and I can’t wait to see it again.

  • 10 1-01-2011 at 10:38 am

    Frank Lee said...

    I read the movie much like Silencio did: the girl ignores Christian principles, of forgiveness and turning the other cheek, and instead seeks vengeance. She succeeds in getting justice, but it literally costs her an arm. Perhaps, in her violent world, that’s the best she could do. But, as usual with westerns, we are left to ponder how similar her environment is to our own more civilized and patrolled world, where a court system can sometimes deliver the justice she had to seek out herself.

  • 11 1-03-2011 at 1:36 am

    yer said...

    Coens are too smart to be religious.