April 16, 2011


Hollywood Adjustment?: Are religious themes and influences becoming more prominent in recent films? (Steven D. Greydanus, Catholic World Report)

Open-endedness and ambiguity are hallmarks of the filmmakers responsible for last year’s most remarkable faith-inflected film, True Grit. Notably, where nearly all the rest of Hollywood’s faith-themed 2010 output had at least one thing in common—they were generally popular, and critical, disappointments—True Grit was the outstanding exception, the Coens’ highest-grossing film to date, and a critical darling with an impressive lineup of Oscar nominations (though, disappointingly, no wins) including best picture, director, actor, supporting actress, and adapted screenplay.

True Grit doesn’t fit any of the categories noted above: It isn’t aimed at believing audiences, it doesn’t grapple with faith issues from a secular perspective, and it doesn’t reduce religious themes to mythic trappings. It can be considered a genuinely religious film—not just a film about religious questions, like A Serious Man, but a film that we are at least invited to contemplate in terms of faith.

Coen skeptics (I tend more than not to be one myself) may easily doubt this judgment, given the Coens’ not undeserved reputation as filmmakers for irony, misanthropy, and nihilism. True Grit has left more than a few critics and even fans squinting in perplexity at what appears to be an old-fashioned moral drama with flawed but sympathetic, capable characters, looking for some hint that the Coens were only joking. There are certainly moments of Coenesque absurdity, but the disdain for their characters that marks many Coen films is absent here, and the film credibly comes together as a narrative about grace and justice.

A new adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel rather than a remake of the 1969 film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar, True Grit tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (played by the extraordinary Hailee Steinfeld), on a quest to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a drifter. “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong,” Mattie declares in an opening voiceover. “You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”

Certain of the rightness of her cause, Mattie is confident that Providence, among other things, is with her: “The Author of all things watches over me, and I have a good horse.” She also has two men, US Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon). Both justice and revenge fuel Mattie’s quest: she is determined to see Chaney hang, on her terms, in her county, for her father’s killing and not some other crime. (Spoilers follow.)

When Mattie finally comes face to face with Chaney, she shoots him—twice. The first time she only injures him, but—in a notable departure both from the Portis novel and the John Wayne film—later on, after he has attacked her, she gets a second chance, and kills him. Under the circumstances it may be possible to view pulling the trigger either as self-defense or as some species of unjust homicide, and that ambiguity colors the consequences of her act.

Later, Rooster bears the injured Mattie across the trackless wilderness under a darkening sky that fades to night. Critic Lee Siegel of the New York Observer, one of the film’s few naysayers, argues that the “fablelike starry skies” symbolize “The Indifferent Universe”—that the “point of the starry sky—as was the point of the Coens’ stylishly pointless No Country for Old Men—is to present the universe as amoral. It is as indifferent to who we are and to the stories we tell ourselves as it is to our fabricated categories of good and evil.”

While I tend to agree with Siegel about No Country, I think he is wrong here. I think we can look into that starry sky and see what Mattie does, the Author of all things watching over her. Beneath her is a good horse—and when the horse fails, there is a good man, a man at least partly redeemed from the wickedness of his past life, carrying her as far as he can. And when the man fails, there is the grace of God. Most explicitly, the grace of God may be seen in the crucial moment when a character utters a whispered ejaculation (“Oh Lord”) as he squeezes a trigger and makes an impossible shot, saving another man’s life and ultimately Mattie’s as well.

To find such themes in a Coen film is itself a gift, almost a grace. Hollywood’s sporadic attempts to reach out to Christian viewers with films like The Blind Side, The Book of Eli, and Soul Surfer will continue; some of these films may even be good. And it’s a foregone conclusion that religious trappings will continue to provide a colorful backdrop for dumb roller-coaster movies.

Genuine religious interest, though, is not a commodity that can be packaged in an elevator pitch or pushed by producers in response to box-office ups and downs. It comes from filmmakers like Nolfi and the Coens with a personal interest in religious questions. For the most part, a religiously illiterate culture will produce religiously illiterate cinema, and films that really explore the big questions will continue to be rare—which is precisely why they are worth seeking out when they do come along.

Except that the culture is so religiously literate that it not infrequently serves up works that explore those questions in implicitly religious ways, whether the makers and patrons realize it or not.

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Posted by at April 16, 2011 6:36 AM

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