Rough Justice

Simon Smart explores the idea of justice contained within the Coen Brothers' film True Grit

I know an old bloke who left school in the 1940s at age thirteen to begin work. He’d leave on a Monday morning on his horse at about 4am to ride thirty miles to a farming job and on a Friday night, he’d ride home again in the dark. I often wonder how soft people of my generation must appear to him.

Something of the same feeling accompanies the cinematic journey into the nineteenth century wild west courtesy of the latest Coen brothers film True Grit. It paints a picture of a world in which anyone who managed to survive beyond teenage years had to be tough (and lucky), let alone those who lived long on the frontier far from comfort, amongst the eccentric, the good and the cruel.

Life-long film buffs Ethan and Joel Coen—directors responsible for films like No country for Old Men, Fargo, and O Brother Where Art Thou?—have enjoyed tackling every genre – film noir, dark comedy, horror, crime thriller, and now a Western.

Here they’ve teamed up with Jeff Bridges again—‘the Dude’ of The Big Lebowski. Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn a U.S Marshall hired by fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hialee Steinfield) to bring to justice the man who killed her father in cold blood. Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, joins the pair on a trek into the Indian Nations in search of the deadly Tom Chaney, played by Josh Brolin.

Typical of all Coen brothers films, in True Grit the directors have soaked themselves in the traditions and styles of the genre they are tackling. The result is an authentic and stylish film. It has all the ingredients of a classic Western, but with humour and a few some surprises.

It’s the 1870s. Steam power is opening up the West and the towns that spring up are full of the brave, the desperate and the downtrodden. Travellers ease their loneliness in the saloon or the whorehouse—with terrible human cost in each place. It’s a violent, world of conquest and survival; of swift and rough justice. An unforgettable hanging scene, watched and applauded by men, women and children, sets a tone within which the story unfolds.

Any who survive in this environment indeed display true grit—none more so than Matty Ross. She is smart, fiercely determined, and unrelenting in her pursuit of recompense.

She and Cogburn make for an unusual pairing. He is a hard drinking, reckless lawman who has killed more men than he can remember. He’s more at home swinging punches in a bar than taking care of a teenaged girl. But she is easily a match for him, and no less sure of the price Tom Chaney ought to pay for his sins.

In many senses this is a classic Western, evoking universal themes; the nature of the human condition, love and commitment, honesty and truth. But it is the notion of justice that is the most resonant and enduring.

In the world of True Grit, it’s an Old Testament type of justice—an eye for an eye.

The film invites spiritual reflection. Opening with a quote from Proverbs 28:1 “The wicked flee when none pursueth,” the story immediately poses questions of good and evil, guilt and conscience.

In the opening scene a camera pulls back from a dead man lying in front of a house—snow falling around him. A voiceover of an adult Mattie Ross, announces a biblically themed epic tale:

  “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”  

It’s a classic story of a terrible evil committed, followed by the search for retribution. And as the audience we look forward to the justice we know is coming.

Biblical Scholar and Theologian Tom Wright says that, “a passion for justice, or at least a sense that things ought to be sorted out, is simply part of being human and living in the world.” Stories like True Grit tap into our desire to see justice done, and, probably, our knowledge that it isn’t always achieved.

We know that in real life innocent people get convicted; guilty people are let off. Companies destroy people’s lives and walk away scot-free. Sometimes people spend the rest of their lives coping with the hurt and bitterness caused by the cruelty or carelessness of another. We know that our hopes to achieve justice are only ever partial, and often fail completely. In True Grit whatever justice the characters are able to achieve comes at a terrible price, with a melancholy sense of being incomplete. Even heroic sacrifice can leave a bitter taste.

The Christian faith endorses the passion for justice that every human being knows—the longing to see things put right.

Jesus was passionately engaged with the world. He celebrated the good things but also sorrowed with the world the way it was—he could sympathise with the Matty Ross’s and weep over an unfair world of violence and tragedy. Ultimately the claim of Christianity is that it is Jesus who bore the pain and injustice of life that each of us feels, and took all that to the cross, providing a means to, ultimately, see true justice done.

The world that is now wracked with tragedy will one day be filled with justice and joy. That’s the promise and claim of Christianity and the Bible.

Films like True Grit are not only fabulous art and entertainment, they speak into and give us opportunity to consider large concerns; where our desire for justice comes from, and also what hope it has of being realised. When we begin to ask those questions Jesus has something to say in response.

Simon Smart is a Director of CPX