Times' Stanley Fish: Coen Brothers' True Grit and Religion

The Coen brothers know a lot about religion. We used to see them on occasion when they were young (or maybe it was just their parents talking about them) at our Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. So yes, the Coen brothers are Jewish.

So it is not surprising to read that their current film conveys religious messages, that they are sensitive to the themes of faith in the book that is the basis for their remake of the film True Grit. Apparently, the book, Charles Portis’s novel, is in some respects a religious story and the film that the Coens make is in turn a story of faith.

From the discussion by Stanley Fish, "Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’" we get the clear impression that the messages embedded in both book and resulting film are derived from mystical Christian expressions of faith, and not from Jewish beliefs. Whatever the content, the Coen brothers know and get religion and are not at all reluctant to use theology in their films, both as part of the expressed reflective thinking of their characters and in the overall results of the actions of their stories.

Fish concludes his extended discussion of the movie with this set of observations:
I watched “True Grit” twice in a single evening, not exactly happily (it’s hardly a barrel of fun), but not in revulsion, either.

The reason is that while the Coens deprive us of the heroism 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.”

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

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